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 Desdecuba.com 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

Agro, Another Efficiency That Doesn’t Arrive / Miriam Celaya


Notice of price cuts

My produce stand, located at the corner of Árbol Seco and Maloja in Central Havana, had a very promising sign a few days ago. It read as follows:

“Informing the population”
From the production results and the availability of agricultural products, price reductions were approved on all MAE small stands in the capital from September 3rd, 2010.

For the uninitiated, MAE means State Agricultural Market.

Following that, the sign enumerated significant per-pound price drops in plantains, cassava and sweet potato, as can be seen in the photo. However, as I approached the counter, I noticed that the establishment had only small, half-bruised avocados and some dregs of sweet potatoes. In response to my question, some customers there informed me that those would be the prices “when they had the produce”. Bottom line, there were none of the “discounted” items, although, days earlier and for several weeks, I know for a fact that there was an abundance of those three vegetables.

I’ve been to the little stand several times since then, without success. The news programs have reported the fabulous banana harvest, a large part of which is rotting in the fields for lack of transportation to take them to retail sites. The image of the food rotting on the ground contrasts against empty markets. More of the same. On the other hand, compared to the significant production of vegetables, there is a serious shortage of other popular high-demand products such as garlic, onion, pepper, fresh vegetables and pork, which demonstrates the continuing ineffectiveness of the structures and the inability to meet the needs of the population, among numerous other causes, because the scant official measures that stimulated agricultural production did not foresee the insufficiency of state transportation to make goods at point of sale effective.

For several days, plantains flooded the city. (Photo: Orlando Luis)

Week-end agricultural fairs are just a palliative to half-cover the popular demand, and are not stable in their offerings: just like they may offer a significant amount of products of acceptable quality for sale one week, they may offer significantly reduced varieties of produce of lesser quality the following week. In all cases, human crowds are inevitable.

Fear, on the part of the authorities, of private sector development in any of its variants, causes gaps in the markets and frustration of producers at the wasted effort. Excessive control is also a major obstacle that sabotages the natural flow between producers, the market, and consumers. It is not enough, then, to “change” an occasional piece of gear. The economy, exhausted, requires profound and effective changes. The government must release Cubans’ productive potential and their ability to work for themselves if it is really interested in reversing the crisis. Already they, the owners of power, have amassed their gains and it is known that they have put their sights on more lucrative and larger enterprises. How long will they hinder the progress of domestic business?

Translated by Norma Whiting

September 21, 2010

Anti-Unionism: Another Revolutionary Feat / Miriam Celaya

Salvador Valdés Mesa, Secretario General of the CTC

On Monday, September 13th, in an unusual statement issued by the Cuban Workers Organization (the CTC), it was announced that half a million Cubans will lose their jobs in the coming months. The amazing thing is not the wave of layoffs in itself, (for a while, it has been rumored that about one million in total will lose their state jobs), but that the announcement, instead of being made by the employer, was assumed specifically by the organization which, by virtue of its name, calls to defend workers’ rights; such an organization which stands, in addition, for moderating to “maintain the systematic monitoring of the development of this process” (of layoffs). This is the paradigm of anti-unionism.

That is how it was made explicit that we will have 500,000 more unemployed by the end of March, some of whom are expected to swell the ranks of the so-called self-employed who will feed, by way of their taxes and leonine locks, the insatiable state coffers.

Without a doubt, this blogger would be guilt of false naiveté if she had ever believed that “the union”, as it is commonly called in every workplace, represented the interests of Cuban workers. Anyone who has ever been occupationally linked to a state job knows that the union is a pulley over the administrative machinery of the State. It is subordinate to it and to the nucleus of the single party at each center. As for me, I cannot remember once in my 23 years of official employment that the union, its members or its leaders ever supported me in any of the conflicts that I had to settle with different administrative levels, or in numerous complaints I had to file during my turbulent working life. I don’t remember “the union” ever forgetting to put out its hand… each payday. The financial collector of the CTC was present alongside the paymaster, to ensure the collection of union dues before the anemic wages would slip through the fingers of the “unionized”.

Another feature of Cuban trade union membership is automatic enrollment when entering the workforce, as with the CDR – an organization in which every Cuban is included as soon as he turns 16 – or with the FMC*, to which each girl “enters” at that same age. You start to work somewhere, and the mere fact of being part of the work force turns you into a member, per se, of the organization. No one asks if you want to unionize, no one explains your rights or the labor successes of the organization in favor of its members. You are limited to compling with its work plan, paying your fees, performing your “labor guard” and attending meetings and performing “voluntary” or “productive” jobs (they are not the same, but both are equally unproductive). That, and an enormous feeling of helplessness, are common attributes that the union imparts to Cuban workers today.

From the very beginning of its commandeering of power, the Castro regime has been responsible for destroying each autonomous organization in Cuba. More than half a century of union struggles that became popular in the nineteenth century and brought significant benefits during the era of the Republic were cleverly monopolized by the revolutionary government, beginning in 1959. The legendary Sierra Maestra commander knew all too well what great power autonomous civic organizations safeguarded. The Cuban labor movement, dazzled with the populism of the revolution’s first steps and with the charisma of its leader, gave up its strength and its independence in the presence of the olive-green caste, and soon it evolved into the servile mass it is today. There are no more traces of union leaders of the stature of Jesús Menéndez or Aracelio Iglesias, just to mention two of the best known, or a union like that of the port workers or the employees of the electric companies of the 50’s.

But, in spite of all that, not even in my moments of extreme fantasizing would I have thought that it would be the Cuban Workers’ Union – the country’s only union – that would consent to make the appalling announcement of a record unemployment rate. I never heard of any country – not even those where “wild capitalism” prevails – in which the organization that protects the workers is the one announcing and controlling layoffs. If any of my readers knows of a case, please enlighten me.

Finally, the facade covering the arrangement is cracking. It is exposing, naked and publicly, the perfect plot between the CTC and the sole employer, the State Party Government, counter to the detriment to workers. Interestingly, we had true unionism while capitalism lasted. Tropical socialism did nothing but crush organized labor. At the present time, when the past structures of “socialism” are blurring, in Cuba we are going back to capitalism, though such confessions have not yet been made public. With its return, workers, without rights or awareness of their own strength, are confined to the most difficult place while the government safeguards us, in another of its usual gestures of infinite sacrifice: it is appropriating the “maleficent capitalist tools” for its own use.

*Federation of Cuban Women

Translated by: Norma Whiting

September 17, 2010

The Dying Bay / Miriam Celaya

The desolate bay

Ever since Sebastián de Ocampo circumnavigated Cuba, between 1508 and 1509, the seduction of the then blue and clear waters of Havana Bay began. He named it Puerto Carenas* because he stopped here to repair some damage to his ship and to renew his fresh water reserves. Two small rivers flow into this bay. Ocampo did not know it then, but he had discovered, this early in the conquest, what would be the key port of Spanish trade with its American colonies. Anyway, the indigenous name prevailed, and the twins, the city and the bay, went on to share the same name: Havana. With its magnificent natural conditions, its narrow entrance channel, its three wide inlets, the width of its space and depth of its waters, Havana Bay is, even to date, ideal as a port and, consequently, an excellent geographical point, both as a destination for passenger ships and for maritime commerce. Almost from the beginning, and for numerous other reasons, the bay was the heart of the city, the center that inspired life and encouraged the economy. The city owes much of its history to its bay and she –for her part- jealously treasures the remains of ancient facts and legends in the mysteries of her dark cradle.

Since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, maritime traffic in Havana was already the most intense of the New World, and some of the largest galleons of the time were constructed in its shipyards. In the nineteenth century, it attained hectic commercial activity due to the Cuban sugar boom after the Haitian Revolution. Through the bay entered, over the centuries, tens of thousands of immigrants and an even greater number of African slaves; it was a widely open door through which poured many of the components that later scattered throughout the Island to lend flesh and spirit to the national culture.

Until the 1980’s, a period of false prosperity derived from the honeymoon with the defunct Soviet Union and of shady deals with the CMEA, Havana harbor was a veritable floating city for the large number of merchant ships that frequented its waters. Moored, anchored or flowing in and out, maritime traffic in the old bay imprinted on the city an atmosphere of movement that contrasts vividly with the spectral appearance it shows today. The bay is like a desert.

Towing crane next to the Santa Clara Pier

With its old docks, Machina and Santa Clara, in ruins, the floating dock empty and covered in rust, an old towing crane abandoned near the Santa Clara pier, sewage and waste-laden greasy water and the smell of pollution invading the space, the bay is a testament to the desecration of the historical memory of the city. She is a distinctive victim of the official apathy, but nobody seems to care. What difference does a little more or less crap in such a dirty city? Many young Havanans shrug their shoulders or look at me in disbelief when I tell them that the Havana Bay of my early childhood had blue water where you could find sea bass that were plentiful, flying fish and many seagulls. Not even my children believe it (“Are you sure, Mom, could it be that you are confusing your memories with your wishes?”) But grey-haired Havanans do know that what I am saying is true.

Dismantling of the jetties

These days, there is a rumor going around that at least part of the scarce maritime commercial activity has been relocating to the port of Mariel, and that a certain Brazilian company is financing the work that will result in a cruise ship terminal in the area of the old piers of the old city, in the so-called Casco Histórico. I don’t know how much truth there is in any of this, but I have seen some work being done in the demolition of the four piers adjacent to the Alameda de Paula and the old fire station, adjacent to the Regla launch pier.

I’m such an optimist that I want to believe that someday there will be changes that will benefit the bay, that -like before- will once again be a fountain of life and of well-being for the city and its inhabitants, that its waters will be clean and that, on a very special day I will invite my suspicious children to walk along the wall of the Malecón, as we so often did when I was still a young girl and they were two little kids. I dream about being able to show them then the quick flutter of the fins of the sea bass frolicking once again in the blue waters of my bay.

* From carenar: (to careen) to clean, caulk, or repair (a ship in this position).

Translator: Norma Whiting

September 14, 2010

Open Letter to a Confused Supporter / Miriam Celaya

Mr. Josep Calvet:

I have hesitated for some weeks to respond to comments that you have occasionally poured into our little forum, but recent events that will mark the fate of my country in a not-so-distant future, force me not only to answer, but also to do so publicly. My intention is, of course, to instigate debate while exposing how damaging the official propaganda has been and continues to be, and how much distortion it creates in the minds of people, including those living in the so-called society of information and democracy. I lay as a premise that, although I feel that your comments have not been disrespectful in their design, they have indeed been so in their content, as I will make clear in this letter.

A fellow countryman of yours paved the way for me when you made some statements, among them, the “subtle” difference that exists between solidarity with the people of Cuba or with its government. At this stage of the game, almost everyone knows that both positions –support for the dictatorial government of the Castro brothers or for the Cuban people- are mutually exclusive, but you obviously have not heard. And you could not find out in any way because, judging by your approach, you – in the best of cases – have been a victim of the media’s misrepresentation and manipulation that you attribute to others in your comments; the revolutionary eloquence has made you dizzy, as indicated by various symptoms: I see that your comments are profusely dotted with those ingredients that the official Cuban discourse has created and disseminated in what we might call the “Manual for collecting foreign solidarity”; its first chapter containing a main tenet: anyone who is not in agreement with the Cuban government is “without doubt or appeal” an enemy, spy, mercenary, etc., at the service of the U.S. government, ergo, he is being funded by that country’s Treasury Department. That’s why this ideal Manual abounds in acronyms used as menacing and demonic accents, such as USAID and USIS, which, by (and only by) the grace of the olive-green verbiage, become per se crime, trial and sentence. “They are funded by USAID,” “they connect to the Internet from the U.S. Interests Section,” are phrases that are used irresponsibly as you do in reference to anyone who questions the government, without considering that, because of the repetition of that chant, the supporters of the longest dictatorship in Latin America have caused the arbitrary imprisonment of many brave Cubans and has contributed to the suffering of tens of thousands of Cuban families.

And, believe me, I make an enormous effort to understand you, because it is difficult to believe so much cluelessness and such fierce indoctrination. If you even admit to not having understood many of the clarifications made in the post “A Pause,” where I explained how I connect to the Internet and the limitations we have in Cuba in order to maintain a blog while facing official harassment, how can you pretend that you do not succumb to the official propaganda machinery that has all the resources and all the power? Yet, I will not allow you to pin attributes that don’t fit me: I do not receive funding from anyone or any institution (my blog, far from being a source of income, is an expense to me), though I reserve the right to accept the personal help of friends who have occasionally offered it to me. I do not connect, nor have I ever connected from the USIS, not because I consider it sinful, but because I have not had the opportunity to do so. I do not consider it shameful to try to find in alternative sites the information and communication opportunities that the Island’s government denies me.

I understand that you do not have much knowledge about Cuban history beyond propaganda and text carefully edited by the regime. If you knew more about this country and its heroes, you would not commit such an offensive blunder as to state that this revolution is Martí-like. Be informed that José Martí was decidedly against socialism and the Marxist ideas, and that he made clear his rejection in an article entitled “La esclavitud moderna” (Modern Slavery), which was how he defined such a system. I suggest you find and carefully read this article which, by the way, the Cuban government has never released here, and which most of today’s Cubans are possibly unaware of. It so happens that you are also sadly mistaken even about this fact, when you contradict the pronouncements of the historic leader of the Cuban revolution himself, who has stated in more than one occasion that he has studied Marx since his youth, and that he read his works during his incarceration (a vacation, by the way) of a little more than a year, after rising up in arms and attacking a military barracks and causing the deaths of dozens of Cubans. For a lot less, other Cubans have faced the firing squad for the sake of “revolutionary justice.” The revolution has not really been, as you absurdly say, “a humiliation” for the U.S., but has reduced millions of Cubans to the humiliating condition of slaves.

Another glaring blunder: the Cuban people did not “rise in arms.” The guerrillas that fought the previous dictator, Fulgencio Batista (another big shot not worth talking about, but a mere amateur compared to Castro), consisted of only a few thousand Cubans, although it is true that the revolution, in its initial years in power, had resounding and massive popular support. The ICAP*, meanwhile, has not “existed for fifty years” as you claim, but was founded in the 1970’s as an institution created to support the government, not the people of Cuba. But don’t be embarrassed by a wrong date, which is not all that important, nor elementary. It is not surprising that someone who believes that an example of great altruism and solidarity is participating in a harvest of cooking bananas that will feed revolutionaries and dissidents alike is confused. That’s scarcely a symbolic gesture. I know that we Cubans have the widespread reputation for making light of things, but be informed that many of us cherish our freedom infinitely more than fried plantains.

On the other hand, let me inform you, Mr. Calvet, that your farm sacrifice does not impress me. Since the early age of 12 until I was 17, for six consecutive school years, I had to participate in agricultural tasks, separated from my family for 45 days each year, incorporated into that monstrosity of the revolution known as the Field Schools. I could not enumerate the number and variety of foods and vegetables I harvested, weeded, fertilized and even sowed, and none of it meant any improvement in my life. Contrary to what many believe, what we need here is Freedom, not foodstuffs. Not all Cubans have the brains of a pig.

As for your comment about the Ladies in White, whom you rudely described as “a crude imitation” of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, it is a heinous insult. As woman, mother and grandmother, I will not let you get away with such a transgression. Dictatorships, whether right or left, remain dictatorships. The Argentine Grandmothers you mention deserve all of mankind’s respect and consideration, but, in equal measure, the Ladies in White have given the world in general and Cuba in particular an unforgettable lesson in dignity. Know that their struggle is more valuable than that of the guerrillas in the Sierra Maestra, because they have confronted the longest dictatorship in this hemisphere in the midst of the city and openly, not hiding in the thicket, not chasing after privileges and power, but demanding the release of husbands, brothers and children captive of the system, not with weapons, but with flowers in their hands, with truths and rights, not killing other Cubans, but marching peacefully through the streets, confronting the fascist hordes organized and financed by the government to suppress and beat them, and chanting a word that should be sacred to all human beings: freedom.

The Ladies in White have the extraordinary merit of being the first civic movement in the history of this country that has achieved an unprecedented victory against the government by sheer force of their will and of the righteousness of their cause. They do not need to imitate anybody, because they are authentic. Today, the Cuban government itself belies you and leaves you exposed for all to see.

I would suggest you go to the Official Cuban Gazette website to find out about the new law that grants the state the right to sell the land it owns (it owns virtually all lands) to construction companies for tourism purposes (Law-Decree 273, Articles 221 and 222.1, published August 13th, 2010), with 99-year leases and also to make sales with rights in perpetuity. It states, explicitly, that the law was enacted “For the purpose of expanding and facilitating the process of foreign investment participation in international tourism.”.

What The Gazette does not state is that this Law-Decree was created expressly to legitimize investments that some American companies are anticipating, in order to build more than a dozen golf courses for the exclusive tourism of millionaires, which is not, in itself, necessarily something negative, only that we citizens are excluded and do not have the right to invest or acquire land to participate in development plans of any kind. That is, we cannot be capitalists, but the state capitalism that prevails in this country gives itself the right to sell the country off in pieces, as if it were a birthday cake, with Cubans not taking any part in the festivities.

I do not know if Mr. Calvet will also perceive the subtlety that preferential buyers who will enjoy the privileges of ownership are precisely the “imperialist enemy” that attacks us, blocks us and harasses us, the same one that — so-called “illegally” — occupies the naval base at Guantánamo. The truly peculiar thing is that, if the base exists today, it is by virtue of an amendment that granted a foreign government the privilege of owning Cuban territory, promoted on the dawn of the twentieth century by an American politician. This new one, which gives away our country to American entrepreneurs and has been designed and imposed on the Cubans by the government of Cuba itself, is the “Castro Amendment.” Contrast this law with one published before it in the same Gazette, giving peasants the land they work and produce with their own hands “in usufruct for a term of 10 years.” It is not necessary to be an astute individual to detect who the owners of power in Cuba are codling, plus let’s not mention the mysterious fate of the proceeds from such sales.

As you can see, Mr. Calvet, the Official Gazette itself is responsible for confirming what “we, mercenaries” are saying. As you may see, additionally, it is a brazen impertinence for you to try to indoctrinate me about the needs of the Cuban people. Unlike the olive-green royalty that you so passionately defend, the same one who so anxiously share in the spoils of the country, I am part of this people, deprived of rights and hopes. How can you have the audacity to point out to the Cuban people what we need and against whom we need to fight? You are definitely clueless: over a century has passed since 1898, my good man, though I suspect that date means absolutely nothing to you.

As I stated at the beginning, Mr. Calvet, your fellow countryman has taken the responsibility to respond with dignity to your twisted interventions in this space. He gives you the benefit of a doubt; I wish I could do the same, but I keep some reservations, because if you allow yourself the suspicion of considering independent bloggers as paid by the U.S. government, you might be giving me the right to assume you are a paid employee of the discredited and despotic Cuban government, which is in the business of buying the world’s solidarity while mortgaging the present and future of this Island and of Cubans. At any rate, I appreciate your participation in this blog, but you lack the moral authority to judge those who are not in love with this government. If you have any intention to participate in this debate again, be truly respectful: do yourself a favor and get informed about the Cuban reality, arm yourself with arguments, and, above all, save yourself the slogans.

Sincerely,
Miriam Celaya

* Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples

Translator: Norma Whiting

September 9, 2010

Goodbye, Granny / Miriam Celaya

Since I am not always home when the news comes on, and taking into account that information is an integral and offshoot component of one’s opinion, a few years ago I negotiated with a kind neighbor for the possibility of getting a secret subscription to the newspaper Granma. For a long time she has been friends with man who brings her the newspaper each morning. Cuban readers probably know that a clandestine subscription consists in coordinating with one of those retired old men who, in order to round out their meager pensions, agree to hoard the newspapers as they arrive at the newsstands, after having arranged with the official salesperson –the intermediary, who reserves a fixed number of papers each day- so that, for the modest monthly fee of 30 pesos (regular currency, of course) you can get one or another pastoral letter of the communist party which, with a different name and printing, repeat more or less the same thing.

Thus, the benefit is mutual: the newsstand vendor gets a little extra money by offering the reseller a newspaper, whose selling price is 20 cents, at 40 or 50 cents; the reseller, who often has a significant number of regular customers, gets a steady and modest profit without having to walk up and down the streets, in the rain or under the sun yelling: “Granma, Granma!” as happens with other unfortunate resellers; while we, those who have “subscriptions” are guaranteed to get, on a daily basis, a few printed pages that serve several purposes: sometimes they are useful to try to guess what are the other elders are up to (the ones in olive green, who do not have to sell newspapers to survive), the paper occasionally turns into material basis for critical analysis, to measure with any degree of accuracy the magnitude of our national disaster, or it’s useful for wrapping fish waste and other domestic detritus. It is an amusing paradox that, in this corrupt insular unreality, even Granma lends itself to shady business; the official organ of the single party feeds the list of contraband goods, possibly with the highest rate of incidence of crime, considering that some of us can afford to spend on the purchase of a daily newspaper, on the other hand, few times a year do we allow ourselves the excess of buying beef.

But today I have finally decided to quit. I’m sorry for the nice old man who has kept to his promise of bringing me my new Granma, on time and for such a long time, without missing a single day, except Sundays, when Granma is not published and I get, instead, Juventud Rebelde (Rebel Youth). I’m sorry, in addition, because I will have to adjust my agenda and to try to watch at least some of the airing of the news broadcasts, but, definitively, in recent times, Granma (Granny) has completed its metamorphosis and has managed to absolutely become a newspaper without any news, a hard copy of disinformation and delusions. Each edition competes successfully for being worse than the previous one. Now, as if it weren’t enough for an anemic newspaper to fill large areas with the usual messianic delusions full of dark omens, they have started to publish, in several pages, three times a week, the pile of more than 800 editorial pages that (they say) Mr. F. wrote, although the first edition remains gathering dust, waiting for buyers in more than one bookstore in the city.

The “Granny”, frankly, might be of great interest to psychiatrists, mediums, gurus and other specialists, but not to me. I won’t allow such a burden of negative energy. Thus, I give up the “privileges” of my illegal subscription and close down my last link with the persistent miasma of the past: I personally shut down the Granma. Farewell forever, Granny!

Translated by: Norma Whiting

September 6, 2010

The Cuban Catholic Church and the Opposition: An Unnecessary Conflict / Miriam Celaya

Havana Cathedral

The dialogue between the government of General Raúl Castro and the top hierarchy of the Catholic Church continues to generate discussions between different opposition groups and the independent civil society sectors. It was expected that half a century of stagnation would bring, as its first consequence, the creaking of rusty hinges when trying to turn on any mechanism of this old obsolete machinery, as it also seems logical that, since it’s been going in reverse, now it’s really hard to move forward.

It is not easy to search and find consensus in a country orphaned of civility and freedoms for such a long time. Most Cubans today have never participated in genuine elections, we have not been activists in a real political party, we have no unofficial places for public debate, we have no free access to information and communications, nor have we enjoyed any the benefits of democracy, but the worst part of all of that is that we haven’t been free. Just like fearful and ignorant slaves, there are those who would not even know what they would make of their lives when the day comes when they have the freedom to fully put their lives in order. That is Cuba’s sad reality, inherited in great measure from 50 years of dictatorship, but also because of 400 years of history that show what costly results triviality and irresponsibility can have on a country.

The moment Cuba is living through has peculiar elements that mark a before and an after. Each analysis can take what it considers a landmark as a guideline, whether the accumulation of elements in the overall socioeconomic and political crisis, the struggle of dissent within the country, the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, the hunger and thirst strike of Guillermo Fariñas, the sustained and courageous action of the Ladies in White, and the increased activity of alternative journalism in all its forms, among other factors, and others that may be unintentionally omitted here. This “before and after” could assume any of these factors, seemingly isolated, as a reference point; however, the pulley that has come to unite some pieces and has helped initiate the rotation of the mechanism has been the Catholic Church. That is a fact.

Just as circumstances present themselves -or how they are broached from all the factors that have had an influence on them- I think that now it is more realistic to weigh the indisputable: changes are taking place and the mediation of the Catholic Church is an important factor in this. Thus, far from taking note of idealistic solutions intended to satisfy the vanity of one or the other opposition leader or overestimating the importance of sectors of the emerging civil society (in which in my own activity as a blogger is included) and, at the same time, without denying the validity of all elements in their own performance, I prefer to take into consideration how positive the Church’s role in this process can be, and how much it could contribute

Some people criticize the mediation in the figure of Cardinal Jaime Ortega, alleging he has never supported the opposition, never visited the prisoners or delivered against the excesses of the dictatorship, which is not fully consistent with reality (let’s recall, for example, the famous pastoral letter “The Motherland Belongs to All”, a document that had great resonance in 1992). As for me, I am not –nor anything of the sort- a fan or even an admirer of His Eminence, but such disqualification could also be applied to the vast majority of the Cuban people, accustomed to fearfully look the other way in the presence of an act of civic courage or in the actions of repressive forces against defenseless citizens; the list of those who can attest to this experience would be endless, both inside and outside Cuba

On the other hand, those who disqualify the Church as a mediator today seem to forget how, throughout all these years, even though most Cubans applauded (we applauded) in the presence of speeches and stages, while religious belief was an unforgivable taboo, while the religious of any tendency were excluded and condemned, and while all of society galloped towards the loss of moral and human values, the Catholic Church was a bastion of solidarity among Cubans of sincere faith, a space for the conservation of the best values, a veritable hive where the work in support of families, Cuban culture, and in upholding its principles under very adverse conditions never stopped. The Cuban Catholic Church was a hotbed of resistance against the communist totalitarianism of this dictatorship from the very beginning, before any of the opposition parties we know today, and it was tolerant and inclusive, while in Cuban society intolerance and exclusion were being imposed.

Many parishes have been carrying the discourse of resistance that few dared to listen to, and much less to speak of, and they have established themselves as promoters of many areas of education, social and academic exchanges and of formation of values. The Catholic Church has been working quietly and patiently for the reconciliation of the Cuban people, while the regime -and others- have dedicated themselves to turn us one against the other. To deny this would be not only an injustice, but also a fallacy.

It is clear that the Church is not a perfect institution and that it does not represent all of us in everything, it has also committed errors and even injustices, but it has also offered its space as a refuge amid the storms. If not, let the Ladies in White, who go to the church of Santa Rita every Sunday say it, let the Cubans who have found the support, charity and solidarity they were missing say it, let the thousands who are gathering spontaneously in the Churches in Cuba to receive, in her pilgrimage throughout the Island, the Patron Saint of Cuba, Our Lady of El Cobre, able to gather, because of their unique status as Cubans, believers and non-believers in the simple avocation of their love for Cuba say it. What other institution in this country would be capable of that? I’m not a believer in the least, I am barely an agnostic, forged in the strictest atheism, who has overcome the denial and pretends to be fair. In addition, since I wish the best for Cuba and Cubans, I support anything that helps to break down the wall.

That’s why I ask those who now oppose the mediation of the Church (I speak of the institution, not its leaders) and who, in addition, accuse her of being “a traitor to the people,” “opportunistic” and other similar epithets, to mention the reasons and accusations to expose to public opinion objectively, who they consider to be the stakeholders they feel might be sufficiently consolidated in Cuba, with the prestige and permanence needed to represent a large portion of the Cuban population, what programs these actors are proposing for change and the phases for transition.

Let those who oppose the Catholic Church-Government dialogue state if they believe that the people can delegate, right now, with full knowledge of cause, in any of the opposition parties and independent civil society groups beyond the sympathy that our struggle for democracy might stir. But above all, let’s be realistic: the Cuban crisis is not going to be resolved in the short term, a transition is a long and complex process to which actors are incorporated as they gain influence and prestige in national public life. Rather than struggle for a position or a prize, it’s time to take advantage of venues that are opening up, and to support actions that promote positive changes in order to be able to enhance the discourse of the current opinion leaders and the emergence of new ones, the birth of new ideas, civic forces and of comprehensive proposals in which we all may participate (including those who, until now, have not participated). Let nobody think that it will be easy, but let’s not make it any more difficult.

Translator: Norma Whiting

August 31, 2010

Epilogue of the JJ Saga / Miriam Celaya

JJ during his hunger strike in which he lost over 40 pounds

This past August 24th, 2010, on his return from the Archdiocese of Havana, where he had been summoned, Juan Juan Almeida settled his hunger strike: his departure from Cuba was being discussed. He eventually left by way of Mexico on the afternoon of the following day (August 25th). This ends another one of the personal dramas that the absurd Cuban emigration procedures provoke, in which every Cuban must go through the odious and humiliating process of soliciting an exit permit from the authorities. This time, another Cuban who stands up for his rights just won over the opportunity to exercise them, I rejoice.

Due to the extent and complexity of the subject, I would like to put aside, until another occasion, the proposal for a debate on the fickle and secretive institution that answers to the name “Directorate of Emigration and Foreign Affairs”, where certain uniformed officers –who misleadingly appear humanoid- dictate whether or not to authorize the release from this country-prison any ill-fated person who has committed the unlucky mistake of having been born into it. If the insect in question (a category that I state while taking into account what the circumstances suggest and not meaning to offend any of my countrymen who, like myself, are subject to the same disgraceful tourniquet), that is, if a Cuban who asks permission has the additional aggravating circumstance of belonging to the black list previously composed from on high, names and inventory numbers (i.e., Identity papers) those highly toxic individuals who are absolutely banned from leaving the country, must say goodbye even to the simple idea that there is a world beyond the geographical boundaries of Cuba, and can only hope for a miracle … or make the miracle happen. We all know that.

For now, I will just refer to the comments that my post (Breaking the Stigma) from August 17th provoked and thank the readers who participated in it for their sincerity. At the suggestion of some readers, I have posted a picture of JJ during the strike, which I found on the Internet, you can appreciate the difference between the pictures when compared with the one I previously posted.

I think that you and I have found in that debate -which was colored by the most diverse criteria around, contrasting and even sharply polarized- how much hatred has been sown among us in these 50 years of dictatorship and how much there is still left to argue and cast out of our souls so we can find reconciliation, the necessary foundation for the Cuba who so many of us dream of.

I am also thankful that all points of views, whether in favor of solidarity with another Cuban, (not “somebody’s son”) as those who chose moral condemnation, helped me to hold on even with more conviction to the principle of harmony that eggs me on: every Cuban who peacefully defends his freedom and his rights against this regime may count on my respect, solidarity and sympathy, independent of his origin, creed and ideology. Nothing is going to make me seem like those who have sown intolerance and mistrust among us.

Nor is remaining in Cuba patriotism. In my case, I have never wanted to leave my country permanently -I assume it would be more convenient for those who have ruined my country to leave- but I have never felt that such a decision makes me a patriot nor a better or worse person than others. “Patriot” is a title that, besides, produces in me certain uneasiness: here and there are terms that have been widely manipulated. Maybe, in order to recoup the true meaning of the word, it would be interesting to also define some day what we are calling “Motherland.”

For now, I will avoid the peculiar word “patriot” while I take back having used the term “idiots” if its use brings unnecessary trouble. Pretend I never wrote it, however, I will leave it in the original post to have it remain a witness, lest some suspicious person suggest that I cheat or that I delete my mistakes so I can deny them. Just know that I defend my stumbles as much as my successes: they make me more human. I don’t write to please, but it is not my intent to offend anyone.

I congratulate Juan Juan right now for having achieved his goal (personal or otherwise) and I offer my best wishes to regain his health. In addition, to all my readers, including some that from time to time carry the suspicious aroma of a camouflaged troll: remain in the ring. Thank you.

Translator: Norma Whiting

August 27, 2010

My Donkey, My Donkey… / Miriam Celaya


May the influenza not win over us!
THE SOLUTION IS IN YOUR HANDS
A message from the Cuban Public Health at the service…

Photo: Orlando Luis

When I was young, there was a very popular children’s song that made reference to a sick donkey whose ills always had a solution. “My donkey, my donkey, has a headache: A doctor sends him a black cap…” we children sang in chorus, and the little tune went on, letting out in its stanzas each discomfort of the quadruped, until he would end up completely cured. I never thought I’d see the day when I would, sincerely and categorically, envy that donkey because, in spite of the difficult conditions that the Cuban reality imposes for our survival, everything is more or less “tolerable” until you find yourself forced to see a doctor. It is there that the true agony starts.

Recently, my mother had to go to the clinic (family doctor) because of her persistent discomfort in the throat. There, after waiting for her de rigueur turn, a physician as ancient as she, or older, prescribed an exudation –to be performed at the Emergency Hospital- to test for possible bacteria. As a precaution, the doctor prescribed Tetracycline tablets to her “to be taken after the exudation.” It is clear that the doctor knows the reality of the Cuban health system. The exudation could not be done because “there is no technician” at the hospital’s laboratory, nor do they know when there will be one, “go see if they want to perform it at the Hospital Calixto Garcia.” They did not want to, or they were not able to. Resigned, and without a diagnosis, my mother completed her “treatment” by taking her antibiotics: she was sick to her stomach and for several days, she still presented with discomfort in the throat. (My donkey, my donkey, has a sore throat; the doctor has put on him a white tie.)

But hers is just a minor case. When you go to a doctor’s office here, you discover horrifying cases. A lady I personally know went to a certain hospital with numbness in one arm and general malaise, including a headache, and, just like that, she was diagnosed with a stroke. Very alarmed, her family then went to another hospital, this time through a doctor friend of theirs, who was a friend of another doctor who had clout, etc. It was only then that, after rigorous tests, they arrived at the correct diagnosis: the old woman was incubating a virus, her immune system was compromised and –besides that- was rejecting the antihistamines she had been prescribed to treat her allergies, hence the numbness of the limbs. She improved within a few days.

I recently heard of an extreme case about a man, also very old, in the terminal phase of lung cancer who was not being given oxygen “as to not to create dependency.” He died within a few days, which was inevitable, only that he was in terrible agony. I’m not allowed to cite this source either, but it is a real life case from my own municipality (Centro Habana). This very humble old man and his family didn’t have any “godfather” to go to. I could write whole pages with enough examples of this sort to crash this website.

I know that many readers might also give examples of irresponsibility, poor attention, lack of resources and missed diagnoses that take place everywhere in the world, but here, they are becoming commonplace, and we don’t have the opportunity to make the slightest claim or to opt for “another service” because of the “egalitarian” and centralized character of the system. The truth is that, in Cuba, one can no longer be assured of receiving good medical care -except for few and honorable exceptions- if not with the corresponding “recommendation.” Almost always, if one sees a doctor through established channels, the doctors’ hands are tied and they cannot perform tests that are required for an exact diagnosis; in other instances they are able to diagnose, but it is possible that the medication needed is not found at the drug stores, or it is dispensed only in CUC, at prohibitive prices for the commonplace Cuban pocket. Because of so much confusion, many prefer not to see a doctor uselessly and try to “make do” with concoctions of traditional medicine and with prayers that aren’t always sufficiently effective, as may be understood. Such are our very expensive freebies.

In today’s Cuba, the total deterioration of the system rages most scandalously in hospitals, polyclinics, clinics and pharmacies. Added to the already inadequate resources -always attributed to the ubiquitous “embargo”- and the eternal lack of medications in national currency pharmacies, is the shortage of medical personnel or the questionable ability of some of those not yet “in mission” or “collaborators” (which is not the same) in some Venezuelan neighborhood, in any remote jungle, or in a lost valley in the Andes. The TV news and the official press abound with examples of the medical miracles Cubans manage through other lands. Apparently, when it comes to Cubans, any place is good to practice medicine and to find solutions to illness… Any place, except Cuba. (My donkey, my donkey, nothing ails my donkey. The doctor prescribes apple syrup. You don’t say! Apple?! Ha, ha!)

Translator: Norma Whiting

August 20, 2010

We, Dissidents

Ladies in White in one of their marches down Fifth Avenue.
Photo: Luis Orlando

I don’t want to saddle anyone with adjectives they don’t want. In general, I, for one, have always been rather hesitant to accept labels, especially when the socio-official “taxonomy” is so prodigious in itself in ambiguous definitions that it turns a political opponent into a traitor, an individual freely expressing their own ideas into a Treasury Department employee of the United States, or alternative bloggers practicing what has been called citizen journalism into “cyber-terrorists.” Everyone, without exception, is put in a large sack with the terrible label of “dissidents”, which automatically makes us “despicable mercenaries at the service of the empire”. Ordinary Cuban citizens that we come across in our daily strolls, or the very neighbors that greet us when we meet on the stairs in our building have come to incorporate into their psyche that we carry on our shoulders and faces the epithet of “dissidents”, that we are a sort of contagious plague, such as the lady with the scarlet letter, the Jews with their yellow star under Nazi Germany or the lepers forced to wear jingle bells in medieval times.

This comment I’m making is a necessary preamble. Believe it or not, a candid and sincere old couple living in my neighborhood was offended when someone warned them to be careful because I’m a dissident. They protested: “Don’t say that about her, she is a good person and hers is a very well-mannered and decent family”. These nice old people and I often run into each other at the grocer’s, the butcher’s or the farmers’ market, and they know my political opinions (which I have never hidden and they are in agreement with, by the way), but won’t allow that anyone to “insult” me with the loathsome nickname of dissident. I simply cannot be “that”.

Another example no less amusing is that of another elderly gentleman, one of my sources of information about what happens in the neighborhood, who even enlightens me with comments that hit the nail on the head. I once told that I am a citizen-journalist and that what I write can only be read on the Internet. “Ah, you’re a journalist!” I said “kind of”. “And you dare to write about the heavy things we discuss?” I answered yes and added that -as he must know- I am a dissident. “No way! You’re not with the government and criticize all the bad things, which are many, but dissidents are those who want the Americans to invade us”. I gave up: he’s over 70, and, with his low level of schooling, he would probably better understand how to manage a blog than the true concept of what a dissident is. The term has been demonized to that extreme.

Because of this, when I use the word I am always ready for a reply, even when applied to a civil disobedient like me. Some people get uptight, perhaps because they know the power of words. That is why, here and now, I ask permission of to all who disagree with the government, of political prisoners, of those who spread the truth about the Cuban dictatorship, of those struggling to promote peaceful change towards democracy in Cuba, of independent journalists, of bloggers, and all civic organizations not affiliated with the government to refer to this large set as dissidents. I assume that everyone in this diverse group has in common a clear awareness of the need for change in our country, will do and say what we think is necessary to promote those changes through peaceful means, the spirit of democracy and freedom, and the hope for a better future for all Cubans, among other principles. The risk this entails unites us in a country where a half-century long dictatorship holds absolute power and has begun to understand that its power will not last forever.

We are used to viewing the government as a clever and powerful enemy, so perhaps we may not have realized how much we have been growing in recent years. There are more Cubans raising our own voices every day inside the Island. More and more groups are facing the dictatorship. It is cracking the shell of fear, and the authorities are expected to increasingly tighten the nut and repress with ever-more rage. Though the signals of the future end of the regime are in sight already, it would be premature and hasty to mention deadlines; we have a long way to go to reach a consensus, a common destiny, but I have the impression that, for some time, dissidents have begun to abandon belligerency and, showing respect for mutual differences, we have begun to show solidarity with each other. That is a first step and a healthy sign.

I want, therefore, to publicly thank today all dissidents for the reasonable end to the hostilities. This time, the alleged “unity” is not based solely on signing a proposal every once in a while. Orlando Zapata’s death, the sacrifice of Guillermo Fariñas, and the constancy of the Ladies in White have had the power of assembly that political harangues or programs of either leader had not achieved before. Interestingly, this time, almost no one is claiming the limelight, and almost all are pushing in the same direction and with similar strength… I vote for such humility to be maintained. All indications are that the true seeds of the strength of the dissidence lay in plurality, solidarity and respect for civic differences.

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Miriam’s Blog: Sin Evasion / Without Evasion

Open letter to the BBC of London / Miriam Celaya

Note to readers of this blog:

The text that follows is extensive. It is a reply to statements made in recent days by the BBC’s correspondent in Havana, Mr. Fernando Ravsberg, as part of statements he made in an interview with his fellow countryman, journalist Emiliano Cotelo, during Ravsberg’s recent stay in Madrid. The complexity of the topics covered there and my total disagreement with Ravsberg’s views prevent me from expressing myself in a shorter post. I warn you, then, that those who enjoy brevity in writing do not get mired in reading this post and forgive the inability of this blogger to remain silent before such iniquities.

Miriam Celaya González

Open Letter to the BBC in London

I’m just one among millions of earthlings who use the Internet. That said, in my capacity as an alternative Cuban blogger, my access to the net is rather limited and sporadic. However, I feel a sincere respect for information professionals worldwide, and consider the BBC a serious and competitive agency. It is just because of this that I cannot understand how it is possible that under such prestige and tradition there is a chance for the defense of such deceitful and unscrupulous “journalists” who, violating every principle of ethics in the profession, are engaged in misinforming the world, distorting the reality of a nation and, incidentally, providing a (free?) service to the longest dictatorship known in the Western world.

Uruguayan journalist Fernando Ravsberg, a BBC Havana reporter, was interviewed recently in Madrid by Emiliano Cotelo concerning the controversial dialogue initiated between the Cuban government and the top hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Cuba. Ravsberg’s answers, at times ambiguous and always highly partisan, reflect the contempt he feels for this country and for Cubans, as well as the profound ignorance of Cuban history and the aspirations of its people. Ravsberg is not the essence of a journalist, but a propagandist of the Cuban regime and, as such, an uncompromising critic of the dissent and civic outbreak that has started to gain strength in society, sectors very harshly persecuted and harassed in the Island that are struggling to maintain the economic, political, and social rights of all Cubans despite the harassment and repression of which they are victims, while “informers” such as the correspondent in question either look the other way or prefer to reinforce the official discourse by fabricating an imagined reality.

What is that “Cuba” that Ravsberg reports about, and what benefits does he get from it? Only he could answer this. We have already read on other occasions his very personalized Cuban scenario analysis and his peculiar versions in interviews he has done, so it is not so surprising this time that the brilliant correspondent of the BBC paint us a Cuba that Cubans themselves do not know and, to top it all, that he should exceed his ominous functions. It often happens that some clever foreigners like him need just a little bit of time in the Island and a couple of questions that they claim to ask around to master Cuban issues. It’s as if the tropics overheat their brain and they lose the ability to discern. Now Ravsberg not only misrepresents the Cuban reality, but also comes out as an expert in sociology and social psychology of Cuba, mainly in terms of politics and religion. An analysis of such nonsense would be extremely long, so I think it’s best to make only some remarks in order to correct a little the compass of this disoriented reporter, who, as the old popular saying goes, can’t see the forest for the trees.

The BBC correspondent in Cuba states that the government does not give value to dissidence “because it receives money from abroad.” I don’t know if this government has provided Ravsberg with the evidence of such emoluments received by “the dissidence”, since the Cuban people have never been shown any concrete evidence of this, unless we take into account the unilateral declarations of the official beefeaters (and unofficial ones, such as Ravsberg). On the other hand, who can be classified as “dissident” to the clever correspondent? In general, in that wide tuning fork in Cuba are included the opposition parties as well as the independent journalists, the alternative bloggers and whoever does not abide by government guidelines. If this is the case, I feel authorized to deny such a claim: at least one large group of bloggers who are close to me and I, among other “dissidents” do not receive any money from abroad. The Cuban government, on the other hand, not only has gotten all kinds of resources for decades (which it still receives and squanders) but –in addition- applies an abusive tax on relatives’ remittances and on any other kind of income Cubans may receive from abroad. With this in mind, it follows that the government also benefits from the alleged foreign funds destined to the internal dissidence, as I’m sure Mr. BBC Correspondent knows.

The Cuban government does not consider dissidence, not exactly for “receiving money from abroad,” but because dictatorships do not accept any alternative demonstration, whether colored by politics or not. The Cuban government does not recognize the opposition parties nor independent journalists, the various alternative civil society associations or bloggers, and we are not even an organization. The weakness of totalitarian regimes lies, nevertheless, in that absolute monopoly over society, over information, and over individual fear, so that all alternative event or trend that may involve a breach in the system becomes “dissidence” and must be demonized. Thus, according to the official discourse (and curiously, in that of “journalists” such as this Uruguayan gentleman) all dissidents “are mercenaries in the service of a foreign power that attacks, blockades and is hostile to us”.

Ravsberg tries to underestimate the international pressure on the dictatorship of the Island following the death of Orlando Zapata by arguing, “except the United States government, no other government condemned the Cuban government for the death of Zapata.” The criticism from Mexican and European parliaments, as well as those of civil society groups, artists and intellectuals from many countries, do not seem relevant to one who, paradoxically, employs Uruguay as an example of democratic tradition. Not even the discrete statements of the Secretary General of the United Nations, who publicly grieved over the death of Orlando Zapata, are mentioned by Ravsberg. His own discourse betrays his distinct sense of democracy: if governments aren’t the ones to directly produce criticism, international pressure does not exist.

Another issue relates to considerations about Cuban politics. Ravsberg tries to convince public opinion that in Cuba there has been a change in president that supposes some difference or change in the Cuban process. In an absurd simile, he makes a comparison between the Cuban dictatorial succession process (a real fingering of the candidate) and Uruguayan democratic elections that placed –via the polls- Mujica in power, after Tabaré Vázquez. Big deal, Ravsberg tells us, both (Tabaré and Mujica) are representatives of the Frente Amplio, this implies that the change in representatives in the Cuban dictatorship is “somewhat similar to what just happened in Uruguay”, since there is a different person in power in each case. One must be very stupid or disrespectful of the intelligence of others to hold such a belief.

Ravsberg’s views walk the same tightrope during the referenced interview, when he asserts “there has been a series of changes in Cubans’ access to hotels, which resulted in tourist hotels occupation rate of 10% for Cubans last summer, which also indicates that certain sectors have good incomes”. And also the unusual mockery on the Cuban people by saying “there have been a lot of changes in the country that people seem not to follow: economic changes, recognition of rights of citizens, for example, internet access, which was banned to Cubans for years, has just been legally ratified by decree as a right, and Internet cafes were immediately established so that any citizen can check out anything, from the Miami Herald to the BBC World and even El Espectador. These are key steps, steps that are not taken into account, but that mean, for example, that the Cuban government accepts, for the first time, to end the information monopoly and to grant access to the world”.

What Ravsberg failed to state is that certain websites cannot be viewed from the cybercafes because the government has “cut offs” that prevent access and, curiously, some of the banned pages are those of the alternative bloggers, which shows that officials show greater fear of the dissemination of news and views of those who are inside the Island than of the entire foreign press, including the one accredited in Cuba. The BBC’s correspondent didn’t clarify that such “rights”, generously granted by the government, will not become generalized, because no salary in Cuba provides enough income to cover the price of lodging in hotels or to afford the luxury to surf the Internet for information, unless there is an alternative income source (not legal), family or friends abroad to cover such expenses, or if the person is a Cuban with a foreign residence permit or with a job contract outside of Cuba. Only thus can Cubans allow themselves such excesses, against the grain of the painfully slow network connections or the questionable hotel service offered. However, each independent Cuban national staying in hotels is so suspect that his stay is carefully controlled by the Ministry of the Interior, with strict monitoring of his spending and the number of times he takes pleasure in these accommodations.

Perhaps a good demonstration of the government’s willingness to end the information monopoly would be to unblock the websites that host the alternative blogosphere (www.vocescubanas.com and www.desdecuba.com, for example), or to allow the right to all those who the official press has offended and discredited through the mass media, to reply, so that ordinary Cubans may get to know all the arguments presented for debate and form their own opinions. Ravsberg cannot ignore that the Cuban press has never published a single one of the documents condemning the government occurring at the national or international level, although it has allowed itself to deride them, so that the people has had only a partial and distorted version of them.

As for the internal repression and harassment that has kept up during seven long years against the Ladies in White, wives of political prisoners of the Black Spring, which the BBC’s correspondent attributes to the indignation of the people against betrayal, is Ravsberg ignoring that the raging hordes that have attacked these defenseless Cubans during their peaceful demonstrations every Sunday are agents of the Cuban government, specifically trained to smack and suppress any demonstration by the alternative civil society, whether they are opponents or not? Mr. Ravsberg is, at best, rude and vulgar when he so candidly states, referring to the talks between the Cuban authorities and the Catholic Church that “there is an antecedent, a few weeks ago when Raúl Castro’s government called on the Catholic Church to inform it that it had authorized the Ladies in White to march freely through the streets again.” In fact, the Ladies never asked nor needed government permission to march for the release of their relatives who are imprisoned for exercising their freedom of expression to disclose truths that Mr. Ravsberg pretends to ignore; the streets are a place they have earned with their reputation and courage, just like they have earned the respect and admiration of all decent Cubans. They conquered the streets on their own.

As for the Catholic Church, which Mr. Journalist regards as if it were a sect of pariahs and fugitives and which he considers “a weak institution”, he clarified that the religious institution is the strongest in Cuba, only that Catholicism a la Cuban is not similar to that practiced in Uruguay, or, say, Spain. In Cuba, the syncretic cults of African origin have not surpassed Catholicism, but they have given rise to a particular religious amalgam in which it is difficult to see where the contributions of one or the other belief begin or end; they have imprecise boundaries because, for example, in everyday practice, the followers of the cults of African descent baptize their children in Catholic churches following the traditional Christian ritual, they place offerings in those very churches and show respect to both God and Oloffi. On the other hand, some call themselves Catholic and make offerings to the orishas, or consult the babalawo. The Social Science scholars in Cuba have never ventured to say that “the majority of Cubans profess an Afro-Cuban faith known as Santería”, as the audacious Ravsberg dares to assure us. Judging by how he sets out the issue, he seems to have spent much time in Cuba doing a survey of high statistical value to ensure this (the National Institute of Anthropology has lost so much for not having him on its staff!), as well as to maintain that the Cuban Catholic Church “is not a strong institution in the sense of having many followers, many supporters. It is a minority religion” and, in spite of that, it has high social influence ” (what, then, is this influence based on?).

I don’t want to finish without proposing to correspondent Ravsberg that it might be advisable to spend a little less time sightseeing in Havana and immerse himself in Cuban History texts in order to avoid issuing disparate comments; willful ignorance is not an ornament, so displaying it so shamelessly is not nice. When this man says that “Cuba is a country that was practically never independent, when the Spanish colony ended troops from another country entered, the US installed the first president, and later on there was practically no democratic history…” he is missing a rich history as a republic in which strong democratic values were consolidated, plus civil institutions that enabled the birth of a constitution in 1940, the most advanced of its time. Ravsberg ignores that the seeds of Cuban democratic vocation were born in unison with the dawning of a nation, when we were still a colony (as were all the nations of Latin America, including Uruguay), which was refined in the XIX century in the ideas of José Martí, the most democratic of all Cubans. Half a century of dictatorship and latent fear are preventing our people to show it; that is why sometimes Cubans don’t dare to express themselves, that is why when they express themselves freely they are incarcerated, that is why any false correspondent may divulge whatever he pleases about Cuba, as long as what he says is in tune with the government line, or risk losing his accreditation. The day Cuba becomes free, maybe even Ravsberg will be surprised of the democratic vocation of Cubans, but, on that day, he will have to strive to be a real journalist.

Finally, I’m sorry for having overextended my comments on what many might consider excessive attention that the BBC correspondent does not deserve, but it is not about him: We Cubans have already suffered enough damage for over 50 years, and, in addition, have had to remain mute to the offenses and contempt of a parasite of the press. I am not speaking on behalf of Cubans in general, no one has authorized me, nor do I merit it so much, but I speak in my own name because, like the bloggers and independent journalists whom I call my fellow travelers, every day I run the risk of repression for spreading the truths of my country, while Ravsberg’s arrogant insolence waddles with impunity in the midst of my people. I speak, too, because as Mr. Ravsberg knows, the vast majority of Cubans ignores the number of blunders being reported about them by this “journalist”, whom, I’m sure, has been welcomed with the hospitality and the affection of which he is not worthy. I don’t have the authority or qualities to issue guidelines to the BBC, but I am of the view that an agency that was born as far back as 1923 and has provided invaluable services to humanity as a reliable source of information, even during the bloody circumstances of the last century’s world conflagration, should be careful when selecting its correspondents: in the case of Havana, the BBC is paying in cash for the perpetuation of lies. It is disgraceful.

Sorry for your time, I hope that, after all, Fernando Ravsberg is only a small and regrettable error.

11 June 2012