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