A Math Test Shielded Against Fraud / 14ymedio, Zunilda Mata

Students waiting to access the admission examination in mathematics at Havana’s José Miguel Pérez High School. (14ymedio)
Students waiting to access the admission examination in mathematics at Havana’s José Miguel Pérez High School. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunida Mata, Havana 28 april 2015 — “This is more protected than Plaza of the revolution,” a teenager joked this Monday just before sitting down for the math test for college admission. Yesterday, dozens of schools across the country held the difficult test to enter higher education. The rigor of the evaluation content has increased this year, after a string of cases of fraud that marred last year’s test.

The National Committee of Admission and Job Placement of the Ministry of Higher Education made a prior call for “discipline, punctuality and rigor” in order to carry out the process of University admission. This time, control measures have also been reinforced to deliver and protect the sheets containing the admission exams. “The chain of custody has been guaranteed,” a teacher boasted this Monday outside Old Havana High School as she answered the questions of curious parents who gathered at the site in the early hours of the morning. continue reading

Rigor has not only been expressed in greater control measures for the distribution of the exams but also in the difficulty of the tests. “They made it a difficult test,” complained a young man at the exit; for him the “math problems were complicated and the equation questions had some kind of trick.” In conversation with 14ymedio, several students expressed their suspicions that the complexity of the examination was intended to serve as a “warning” so that last year’s irregularities wouldn’t happen again.

The Municipal People’s Court of Marianao imposed, last November, heavy penalties for those responsible for leaking tests in the process of higher education admission for the academic year 2014-2015 in the province of Havana. A similar event happened at the Faculty of Medicine of Santiago de Cuba, where second year Anatomy and Statistics tests were leaked along with the fourth year English test and the well-known state test that all sixth year students must cope with.

Teachers and methodologists involved in the scandal were sentenced to from 18 months up to 8 years in prison. During the police investigation, it came out that several of these teachers trained groups of students, without legal authorization, based on the leaked test questions. The figure of the tutor – a teacher privately contracted by families, outside of the schools – has become famous in Cuba to prop up the deterioration of teaching quality in the schools themselves. 

The figure of the tutor – a teacher privately contracted by families, outside of the schools – has become famous in Cuba to prop up the deterioration of teaching quality in the schools themselves.

The events led to a new math test held on May 6, 2014, to the modification of the Spanish and history tests and to the “extraordinary repeat test for these three subjects,” as Granma newspaper explained at that time. Repeating the state test and the indefinite invalidation of the diplomas of the medical students involved in the leaking also occurred in Santiago de Cuba.

In order to avoid the repetition of such incidents in yesterday’s math exam, examination sheets were distributed to officials and managers during the weekend in sealed envelopes, requiring a signature to open them. “This year we have managed to avoid that teachers have prior access to questions; only school principals and heads of Departments are allowed to handle the exams”, assured a methodologist from the Playa municipality.

The official press echoed the words of René Sánchez, President of the National Committee on Admission and Work Placement of the Ministry of Higher Education, for whom the current round of testing is characterized by “transparency” and “purity.” As the official explained, we should now add that there is no access “to the fraudulent” in the slogan “The University is for Revolutionaries.”

This year, the majority of university openings correspond to medical, pedagogical, technical and agricultural majors. High School graduates compete for a total of 57,375 spaces in daytime course options and the so-called “encounter courses” – that is courses where students attend classes. Although there are more places than students for the examinations, much of what is offered is not of interest to young people. The pedagogical and agricultural careers are considered among the worst and students foresee them as a road to sacrifice with low wages and little social recognition.

In a few days, once the results of the tests are published, students may request a requalification process of a review of their scores.

The Spanish examination for University admission will be held on 30 April, and on May 4 that of Cuban history. In the meantime, the repeats for all these tests will take place between June 18 to 24.

Translated by Alberto

Book Fair Falls Short of Expectations / 14ymedio, Yosmany Mayeya Labrada

Zuleica Romay, President of the Cuban Institute of the book, writing a message against gender-based violence. (Y. MAYEYA)
Zuleica Romay, President of the Cuban Institute of the book, writing a message against gender-based violence. (Y. MAYEYA)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yosmany Mayeya Labrada, Santiago de Cuba, 28 April 2015 — The 24th edition of the Santiago of Cuba Book Fair did not meet official forecasts, nor was it up to the celebrations for the 500th anniversary of the foundation of the city. In the event, which closed its doors last Sunday after five days of activity, 85,000 books were sold. Between 250,000 and 300,000 people attended the reading fair, despite the high prices and the narrow range of titles on offer.

The authorities of the Cuban Book Institute (ICL), however, defined the fair as a success. “We are succeeding in having each event resemble the territory where it occurs, with the provinces leaving their cultural imprint on the fair and writers feeling more at ease to interact with their readers,” said Zuleica Romay, president of the organization. continue reading

Ramon Alvarez Cortés, President of the Organizing Committee of the fair, also spoke of an “excellent, successful and wonderful” event. His opinion, however, contrasts with that of readers such as Moraima Lescay, resident in the municipality of Palma Soriano, who complained of not being able to buy the textbooks she was looking for because they ran out in the first two days of the fair. To this Santiago resident, children’s texts were at “unaffordable prices” relative to wages.

Among the youngest, there were more positive reviews. Javier Méndez, a young man from the María Rafael de Mendive high school, for example, said he was “satisfied” with this event and considers it as “the best edition in the relation to the past”. According to the young man, this time “there was more variety in the books” and he could even buy at an affordable price the three volumes of “One thousand and one nights,” in an adaptation of Oriente Publishers.

Some participants regretted that children’s texts were “at unaffordable prices” relative to wages.

Ideology and politics monopolized much of the presentations. During the last days, they launched books like Palomas Blancas (White Pigeons) by Ramón Labañino and Enigmas y otras conversaciones (Enigmas and Other Conversations) by Antonio Guerrero, two of the five spies who returned to Cuba in December of last year after being imprisoned in the U.S.

Another title put forward at the fair was Estados Unidos: El precio del poder (The United States: The Price of Power), written by the son of the Cuban President, Alejandro Castro Espín. However, the public better valued the texts of the national award winners Leonardo Acosta and Dr. Olga Portuondo Zúñiga, to whom this fair was dedicated.

Portuondo Zúñiga said she was surprised by the number of people at the provincial events, from Pinar del Rio to Santiago de Cuba, and said that she will continue writing “for a growing audience.”

On Sunday, the last day of the Book Fair, there was a clear denunciation of gender violence. On the so-called Orange day, various initiatives, organized with the support of specialists from the United Nations, warned about the physical, sexual and psychological harm or physical suffering caused by acts of aggression against females.

The presence of Zuleica Romay contributed to the visualization of a problem affecting Cuban society, although there is little room for it in the media.

Ideology and politics monopolized much of the presentations

More than one hundred people wrote and signed messages rejecting violence against women. Romay, for example, explained that a victim of violence is also someone who grows up in it and then reproduces the violent behavior: “Let us give love to our children so that they can give love when they are older,” he added.

A professor of psychology at a university in the eastern part of the country, who attended the meeting, said that Santiago de Cuba is one of the provinces with the most cases of this kind of violence and that in the last two years about ten women have been killed for this reason.

The fair featured, for the first time, an exhibition area dedicated to the United Nations. From the 22nd to the 26th of April, readers had access to several publications of this organization and its regional specialists. Between the texts and multimedia which were presented, some also reflected on the situation of the city after the passage of Hurricane Sandy and the long process of recovery that they have been undergoing.

Translated by Alberto

Lowering the price of milk does not satisfy buyers / 14ymedio, Rosa Lopez

There is more rum than milk in Cuba (14ymedio)
There is more rum than milk in Cuba (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Rosa Lopez, Havana, 28 April 2015 – In Cuba it is cheaper to buy a liter of rum than a kilo of powdered milk. Ever since convertible currency stores appeared in the nineties, people have been demanding price reductions for basic products. In its Monday edition, the Communist Party newspaper Granma announced a price reduction for powdered milk, but the measure has not been met with the satisfaction the authorities expected.

The new measure reduces the price of kilo of powdered milk by 15% in the hard currency stores. Now a kilo (2.2 pounds) costs 5.50 or 5.75 convertible pesos (CUCs), and a half kilo cost 2.90 or 2.80, depending on the quality of the container. The reduction, which went into effect on April 24, ranges from 0.45 to 0.85 CUC per packet, and is derived from “updating import costs,” according to sources at the Ministry of Finance and Prices. continue reading

The price adjustment benefits only the small sector of Cubans who can afford to pay the equivalent of what the average worker earns in four days for this product. Everyone else has to abstain from drinking milk or resort to the black market, where it is sold for a little less than half the official price.

In the store attached to a gas station located at the corner of Boyeros and Ayestaran Streets, several customers browsed on the Monday of the publicized price reduction, which so far has not set off any buying frenzy. The parishioners were wary and disappointed by how small the price reduction was for this basic food.

“What they have done is to return to almost the same price they had before the last year’s huge price increase”

Caridad Rojas has twin three-year-olds and the milk quota assigned to them in the ration market isn’t enough. After reading the note in Granma, she went to the closest store to buy milk at the new prices. “The truth is, what they have done is return to almost the same price from before last year’s huge price increase.”

The unpopularity of the measure adopted in 2014 could be one of the reasons the authorities decided to lower the price of the product. “They greatly reduced sales with the increase in prices, so in the end the State ended up losing money,” said an employee at the Carlos III commercial center, one of the largest supermarkets in Havana.

Meanwhile, milk continues to be distributed in the usual way to children under seven and to patients prescribed special diets at subsidized prices in the ration market. The rest of the buyers will confront the prices of the “hard currency” stores, where they can also pay in national pesos at an exchange rate of 1 CUC to 25 CUP (Cuban pesos, or “moneda nacional” – national money).

Linksys negotiates the sale of wireless routers in Cuba / 14ymedio

You cannot get a wireless router at state owned stores (14ymedio)
You cannot get a wireless router at state owned stores (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, 24 April 2015 – Linksys, the American company that makes routers for home networks and small businesses, announced on Thursday that it is negotiating with the United States Department of State and other authorities to receive the necessary directions that would allow it to distribute wireless routers in Cuba. Its intention, as affirmed by the company through its vice president of product management, Mike Chen, is to help overcome financial and technological obstacles that currently prevent expanding Internet access in the country.

“Now that we are celebrating this milestone, we must also remember that our work is not finished. Along with the launch of the #LinkYourWorld company, we have set out the objective, together with our business partners, to better connect the Cuban people to one another and with the rest of the world,” said Chet Pipkin, the CEO of the company. “This is our opportunity to promote the development and growth of Cuba. We believe that recent political changes make this effort more viable, and we look forward to working with our partners in the industry and with government officials to achieve this important goal.” continue reading

The company plans to take the lead in connecting Cuba, taking the LinkYourWorld campaign worldwide. The worldwide promotion will contribute to educating people about the value and significance of internet access in daily life at home, at work or on the go. Linksys plans to introduce programs and interactive content on its website and its pages on social networks, as well as in stores and value added resellers.

The announcement was made in a press conference celebrating the hundreds of millions of routers sold around the world, a milestone achieved by the California Company that took its first steps in 1999.

In Cuba the only way to get a wireless router is in the black market. The price is around 100 CUC (convertible pesos, roughly US$110).

Translated by Alberto

Corruption and its Three Enormous Harms / 14ymedio, Carlos Alberto Montaner

Protest against corruption in Spain (Flickr/CC)
Protest against corruption in Spain: “They don’t govern, they steal!” (Flickr/CC)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Carlos Alberto Montaner, 25 April 2015 – Mexico and corruption are two words that always go hand in glove, or as the Columbians mischievously say, “grab each other’s peepees.”

Corruption in Venezuela is greater, and that of Argentina is not far behind, according to Transparency International, but to judge by what is happening in Chile, Brazil and Cuba, it seems to be a bad Latin American epidemic.  The continent, with few exceptions, is a pigsty.

In any case, the Mexican government wants to end corruption. It was about time. Is that possible? When did it start? They tell you, laughing, as soon as you set foot in the country.

The Spanish conquistadors tortured Cuauhtemoc, the Aztec chieftain, to make him reveal where he hid the gold: continue reading

“Tell me, you damned Indian, where the gold is,” screamed the torturer, through the interpreter, while he burned the hands and feet of the warrior prince.

“I’ve told you forty times that it is buried 50 steps from the pyramid, under the palm tree,” screamed Cuauhtemoc, writhing in pain.

“He says he does not know, and that if he did know, he would never tell you,” translated the interpreter, secretly rubbing his hands together.

It all started there. Right at the beginning. The confusion between public and private is in Latin America’s DNA and in that of three quarters of the planet. They gave Hernan Cortez a tribute of 20,000 Indians as a reward for the conquest of Mexico. Then they took them away, and the fierce captain ended up in Europe, poor and angry, unable to forget the scorching odor of burned flesh.

Some cynics and pragmatists – sometimes they are the same – maintain that corruption is a form of wealth redistribution and income growth, designed to stabilize society through a web of interests and complicities.

I do not believe it. The harms that unpunished corruption causes are usually devastating. Let’s look at just three from an infinitely greater list.

First, it rots the essential premise of the Rule of Law, making a lie of the principle that everyone is subject to the authority of the law. If the politician or the civil servant steals with impunity, or receives bribes for granting favors, why is the common citizen going to pay taxes?  What stops him from lying or cheating?

The law establishes that it is a crime to sell cocaine and also to seize public property.  Why not sell cocaine if others embezzle the national treasury with impunity?  Why not rob a bank?  What moral difference is there between stealing from everyone or stealing from a business or an individual person?

Second, it distorts and inflates the whole economic process.  The market economy is based on free competition.  It presumes that goods and services compete on price and quality.  It is the end buyer who decides which businesses succeed or fail.  When a politician or an official favors one business in exchange for a commission, this unholy operation forces the consumer to select an inferior and more expensive option, given that the cost of corruption is added to the prices.

Moreover, corruption eliminates incentives to innovate and improve the quality of the offer, while it notably reduces productivity, which is the foundation for growth.  Why be more productive and lower prices if we have a captive market?  Why design a new and better car if the customer is obliged to buy the usual one?  Sometimes the businesses themselves distort the market by agreeing among themselves to raise prices.  This is another serious form of corruption.

Third, it destroys the ideal meritocratic structure to which all healthy societies should aspire.  It weakens the passion to study and curbs the entrepreneurial impulse. In corrupt societies personal connections prevail.  “He who has godparents gets baptized.”  That is the general order.  Ties are more important than effort to compete in an open and free market.  What sense does it make to burn the midnight oil studying when, in order to enrich yourself, it suffices to pass an envelope under the table of a corrupt official?  Why sweat and toil in the effort to create a successful business if to achieve economic success a combination of personal relations and lack of scruples suffices?

There is no doubt: corruption kills the political and economic system and moral values.  Ask the Spaniards who today walk that dark and uncertain road. Of course corruption is a tendency present in our species. That is known, but it is not a good excuse. Either we fight it and defeat it or it devours us. It is that simple.

Translated by MLK

European Parliament Members call for EU mediation to release Cuban artists from prison / 14ymedio

The vice president of the Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party in the European Parliament, Pavel Telicka. (European Democratic Party)
The vice president of the Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party in the European Parliament, Pavel Telicka. (European Democratic Party)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Havana, 24 April 2015 — The vice presidents of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party of the European Parliament, Fernando Maura and Pavel Telicka, have asked the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Frederica Mogherini, to intervene with the Havana Government for the release from prison of Angel Santiesteban and Danilo Maldonado. In a letter to Mogherini, signed by some thirty Eurodeputies, they also call for an end to the “prolonged confinement” of Tania Bruguera.

In a letter released this Friday, the Eurodeputies ask Mogherini to mediate for the withdrawal of the charges for “counterrevolutionary activities” against the regime opponent Antonio Rodiles and his partner Ailer Gonzalez. continue reading

Maura and Telicka argue that “any step in the advancement of international diplomacy must be accompanied by a demand for a radical change in Cuban policies that restrict freedom of expression and imprison dissidents,” and they demand that respect for human rights “prevails” in relations between the European Union and Cuba.

The graffiti artist Danilo Maldonado, known as El Sexto , has been in prison since last December on charges of contempt and he continues to wait for trial. He was arrested while trying to stage a performance with two pigs stamped with the names “Fidel” and “Raul.”

The writer Ángel Santiesteban is serving a sentence of five years for an alleged crime of violation of domicile. However, activists and independent lawyers have denounced the many irregularities that were brought to bear during his trial.

Bruguera is currently unable to leave Cuba, because she is being legally prosecuted for the events arising from her attempt to organize a performance this last December. Since then, the artist has denounced “a constant psychological war.”

In defense of our doctors / 14ymedio, Eliecer Avila

Cuban doctors before leaving on a mission. (EFE)
Cuban doctors before leaving on a mission. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Eliecer Avila, 23 April 2015 — Last night while watching the images of the homecoming of the doctors who participated in the fight against Ebola in Africa I was very excited. I believe that every man or woman in the world who decides to run these risks to save the lives of unknown human beings thousands of miles away deserves total respect and admiration. In my own family there are examples of this.

They are completely mistaken, however, those who think that, because of having different ideas, wanting Internet for everyone, along with real wages and basic freedoms, the opposition is against this solidarity or doesn’t recognize the courage and heroism of our physicians. Nothing is further from the truth. continue reading

On the contrary, if we could attend a democratic parliament many of us would fight the whole time in favor of better living conditions and of working for them. I believe that in the same way it is legitimate to share material and human resources with those with the greatest need, and it is also legitimate to wage serious debate in our country about wages, security, and the role of the State in general, with respect to Cubans who participate in these foreign missions. Many of them have written several letters telling us of their experiences, with their lights and shadows.

On the other hand, the fundamental problem of the income of Cuban professionals in the country persists. And this extends to all sectors and goes directly against what should be the primary objective, that is adequate attention to our own people.

The doctor who cares for families in the mountains of the Sierra Maestra in Cuba, has the same right to progress in life as the one who operates at the Institute of Cardiology and Cardiovascular Surgery in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood, as the one who works outside the country. All of them sacrifice equally, and the cost of this sacrifice, which extends to their families who are affected at all levels, should be studied, publicized and discussed.

I know clinical specialists and surgeons who don’t even have a bicycle to get to work and who serve interminable shifts with a snack that may be nothing more than plantains and a glass of sugar water. I also know guys who spend a month on an optometry course, leave on a mission, and on returning to Cuba are able to give their professor a ride in their own car. And what is wrong is not the latter, but the first.

In any case, I am not trying to fully address this issue in one article. So I return to the original idea, which is nothing more than to congratulate from the depths of my heart the doctors, nurses and support staff who returned home yesterday. I want to reiterate that they will always have an ally in us. The fight for democracy is also the fight for life, for peace and for people’s material and spiritual happiness, without which health is impossible.

Demographic Enigma / 14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar

The projected number of young Cubans in 2015 seems to have been mistaken. (14ymedio)
The projected number of young Cubans in 2015 seems to have been mistaken. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 23 April 2015 — The National Electoral Commission recently informed us that 63,441 young people had turned 16 since the previous elections in 2012, which gave them the right to vote on Sunday. However, demographic estimates made in 2006 by the government projected that by 2015, the country would have 275,389 young people aged 17 to 18 years. Where are the 211,948 missing young people?

According to the calculations of the Center for Population Studies, in 2015 Cuba has 138,866 18-year-olds, and 136,523 17-year-olds, totaling 275,389 young people in this age group. That Projected population for Cuba for the period between 2007 and 2015 was published nine years ago. continue reading

Logically, this includes not only those who turned 16 before the municipal elections on 19 April 2015, but also those who were born in 1998 and 1997 who turned, or will turn 17 or 18 in any month in 2015, because none of them had reached age 16 in September 2012 when the last elections were held.

Similarly we also have to add those who were born after September 1996, but who were not old enough to vote in the last election. If we just consider those born in 1997 and 1998, who had not previously been able to exercise the right to vote, the figure of those eligible to vote should be around 275,385 mentioned above. Missing, or having disappeared from the lists, are nothing more nor less than 211,948 young people.

Is it a colossal miscalculation on the part of the National Bureau of Statistics? Perhaps the electoral authorities, who work in coordination with the Identity Card offices, didn’t find these guys, or put them in the wrong account? Or is this number of missing made up of those who have left the country or are in prison?

Most likely we will never know what has happened to these “lost” youth.

Yoani Sanchez: “I am not expecting that Obama is going to demand our rights” / 14ymedio

14ymedio bigger(EFE) Santiago de Chile, 22 April 2015 – Yoani Sanchez said on Wednesday that the normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States gives new hope to the inhabitants of the Island, but stressed that Cubans themselves must exert pressure to demand their rights.

“I am not expecting [US president, Barack] Obama, from the White House, is going to demand our rights, it is up to us,” said the regime opponent and journalist at a press conference in Santiago de Cuba, where she had arrived for a three-day visit.

On the normalization of relations between the two countries, the blogger felt that the United States has made several concessions so far, but the Government of president Raul Castro has been hiding his cards. continue reading

“The issue of human rights and freedoms, such as of the press, has been knocking on a closed door, but we don’t know if the Cuban government is going to cede anything,” she said.

Beyond the scope of the negotiations, Sanchez said that it is a beneficial process because it gives hope and externalizes the “conflict between the Cuban people and the Cuban government,” which, in her opinion, is the real conflict on the island.

“I would like for this process of negotiation to also bring acceptance on the part of the Cuban government of a multiparty system, of the legal existence of independent media, and a commitment not to violate human rights,” the journalist said. She predicted, however, that the regime will cling forcefully to the “absolute control” that it exercises.

On being asked for the reasons of the rapprochement between Cuba and the United States, the regime opponent said that Venezuela’s economic and social crisis is a “determining” factor, due to the economic assistance it provides to the Castro regime.

Sanchez also welcomed the announcement of the trip Pope Francis plans to make to Cuba this coming September, before visiting the United States, and expressed her desire for the Pope to promote “the end of political imprisonment.”

Regime opponent Chaviano receives an additional 51 votes / 14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez

Hildebrando Chaviano and his wife Susana Mas (14ymedio)
Hildebrando Chaviano and his wife Susana Mas (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez, 21 April 2015 – Hildebrando Chaviano ultimately received 189* votes in the local elections held last Sunday, according to the final counts published on Monday. The opposition candidate was unaware of a third polling place, where he received 51 votes, adding to the 138 he received at the other two polling places.

The president of Chaviano’s polling station had not mentioned the third polling place. However, the information published on the ground floor of the FOCSA building, where he lives, showed that the candidate officially classified as “counterrevolutionary” received more support than initially thought. continue reading

Despite the emergence of this new group of voters, Chaviano still lost at the polls and accepts his defeat. The lawyer said that he has not lacked for expressions of support and respect from his neighbors and FOCSA employees. Pucho, as the neighbors call him, said he had heard “many positive things” and believes that people “are happy with the result” because it is something out of the ordinary.

The regime opponent commented that his preparation for these elections started at the end of last year. He confided that the Candidates for Change initiative, to which he belongs, could put together a more solid plan for the upcoming opportunities, because this time they only had a few months. Although not elected, Chaviano considers that what happened last Sunday has been a complete success and the noisy act of “Revolutionary Reaffirmation” staged by pro-government groups will not intimidate him.

Translator’s note: In the first two polling places the total votes cast (not counting annulled and blank ballots), was 741, of which Chaviano received 19% and the winner received 28%. We do not have these figures for the third polling place.

138 Votes for Chaviano / 14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez

Vote count in polling station number 2 of Hildebrand Chaviano’s district (14ymedio)
Vote count in polling station number 2 of Hildebrand Chaviano’s district (14ymedio)

In the polling place on the ground floor of the FOCSA building, the vote count placed the opposition candidate only 18 votes behind the candidate who won the nomination

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez, Havana, 20 April 2015 – At polling station number 2, located on the ground floor of FOCSA, the vote count ended near seven in the evening, and Hildebrando Chaviano, the opposition candidate, came in last place. So far, no news. But things change if the data are analyzed. Of the 448 valid ballots, Hidlebrando Chaviano received 105, only 18 fewer than the candidate finally nominated. A complete triumph for someone described by the official biography as “counterrevolutionary.” Also, 14 blank ballots and 25 cancelled ones were counted at this polling station.

“The population is not prepared, there is much ignorance and confusion created against us but even so, much has been achieved because never before has it come to a candidacy,” the lawyer explained to the EFE agency; he is a resident of the Havana neighborhood El Vedado where he ran and was elected by the residents of his zone. continue reading

In all, Hildebrando won 138 votes in his district, according to the telephone report by the opposition candidate himself minutes after the count ended. His colleague Leonard Hernandez, of Digital Spring, was an observer at the other polling station that completes the district (number 1 on 13th Street between M and N) and said that there were 33 ballots for the opposition candidate there.

Outside of polling station number 2, a small group of Government sympathizers began to scream “Viva Fidel” and other repeated slogans. Among them were numerous agents from State Security who observed each movement and each visitor. The international and Cuban press crowded the office in which the polling station was situated.

With the votes of the two polling stations added, the total of valid votes in the district was 741, according to information supplied by Chaviano. The winner, with 208 votes in his favor, received 28% of the total valid votes, while the support for opposition candidate Chaviano was about 19%, only nine points behind for this unprecedented candidacy.

“The changes have to be mental, above all losing fear and deciding to vote for the ones that you truly want, not for what they have always placed here for me which is not going to solve anything,” said the dissident who believes that his candidacy has given the citizens of his zone the opportunity to be “a little disobedient.”

Translated by MLK

The media success of a regime opponent / 14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez

Chaviano Hildebrand and his wife, Susana Mas. (14ymedio)
Chaviano Hildebrand and his wife, Susana Mas. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez, 19 April 2015 — “Who did you vote for?” an older woman was asked by her neighbors. “For Chaviano,” she said, on her way out of the polling station in the FOCSA building, just as a reporter from this newspaper was passing by. Maybe it was a coincidence, or maybe, after everything, the official myth that the Cuban opposition represents nobody fell today.

Someone, at least this woman who didn’t even notice who was listening to her, voted for “Pucho,” as Hildebrando Chaviano is affectionately called. The opposition candidate spoke with 14ymedio in the afternoon today, while resting a bit from the election hubbub in his 28th floor apartment, where he lives with his wife, Susana Mas, also a journalist.

It had been a marathon day. CNN, EFE, AFP and several other chains and news agencies had been interviewing him since the morning. One of them that has most impressed Chaviano is Cuban Television. “It was the first time I gave an interview,” he said. Although he didn’t recognize the reporter, and thought that a good part of his comments in front of the national cameras would be censored because of the content of his discourse, the candidate was somewhat surprised by the initiative. continue reading

Hildebrand Chaviano confesses that it will be a day he won’t forget. It is the first time a regime opponent has been presented in the elections, and the fact has not passed unnoticed. His biography, at the entrance to the polling place, was drafted with the worst epithets of the Electoral Commission, starting with “counterrevolutionary.” However, this has not stopped some neighbors from showing enthusiasm with the idea of seeing something different this time. A few days ago, Pucho said, a voter commented on his candidacy, “Finally I see people ashamed of this.”

CNN, EFE, AFP and even Cuban television have been interviewing Chaviano since the morning

There have been many other displays of affection. One of his old neighbors – Chaviano has lived in his apartment since 1961 – has developed a motto that everyone in the house joined in on: “Let’s vote for Pucho because we love him so much.”

While waiting for the counting of votes, starting at six in the evening, the opposition candidate speaks a little of what his plans are if he is elected. First, he says, is to improve the nutritional conditions of the elderly people in the community who are unprotected. He also anticipates fighting for better conditions for those whose housing is in a critical state of deterioration and who can’t get credit to make repairs.

In the long term, in a somewhat larger battle, Chaviano advocates defining the self-employed as legal entities. Ideologically liberal – a current he defends in the midst of the populist official attacks – the opponent wishes to grant guarantees to private entrepreneurs to promote the development of small local businesses.

When the vote count begins in the two polling stations where the photo of Hildebrando Chaviano is on display, two of his friends will help, as observers, while the ballots stack up for one candidate or the other.

Press Freedom in Cuba Is the Most Threatened in the Americas / 14ymedio

At the beginning of March, official journalist Leandro Perez was detained in Cuba while he was photographing an arrest (Indomar Gomez/14ymedio)
At the beginning of March, official journalist Leandro Perez was detained in Cuba while he was photographing an arrest (Indomar Gomez/14ymedio)

The Island is among the top ten countries of the world with the greatest censorship

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Havana, 21 April 2015 – The control that the Cuban government exercises over the media was one of the strictest in the world in 2014 and the most rigid in the Americas, according to the report published Tuesday by the Committee For the Protection of Journalists (CPJ). The nonprofit organization with headquarters in New York, which works to protect the world’s press freedom, puts Havana in 10th place on the list of States with the highest levels of censorship but notes “significant progress” in recent years.

The CPJ’s report stresses that “print and broadcast media are totally controlled by the single party and have to be ‘in line with the objectives of the socialist society.’ Although the Internet offers some space for critics, the service providers block the undesired content,” as is the case with 14ymedio. continue reading

The organization highlights the difficult situation of independent journalists and bloggers who have to use websites hosted outside of the Island or access foreign embassies or hotels in order to have an unfiltered Internet connection. In spite of the opening of some critical spaces, this content mostly continues to be inaccessible to Cubans who still do not have a high speed Internet connection.

The research by CPJ highlights that visas for international journalists are awarded selectively and that the Government “continues to persecute critical journalists through harassment, surveillance and short-duration detentions,” citing the cases of Juliet Michelena Diaz and Angel Santiesteban Prats.

The greatest worry in the case of Eritrea centers on the possible death of five journalists arrested in May 2001, about which exiled colleagues raised the alert. Faced with the impossibility of being able to confirm it, the CPJ keeps the professionals on the list of prisoners in order to prevent the case from falling into oblivion.

North Korea, with tightly controlled and centralized information, occupies second place on the list. The official number of people possessing mobile telephones (excluding those that arrive as contraband from China) is about 9.7%. The control of information in the Asian country is so remarkable that all mention of Jang Song Thaek, the ousted and then executed uncle of the leader Kim Jong-Un, has been eliminated even to the point of editing the audio-visual material in which he appeared in order to suppress images of him.

The tactics used by Eritrea and North Korea are repeated to different degrees in other countries with strong censorship. The repressive regimes cling to power thanks to a combination of monopoly over the media, harassment, surveillance, threats of prison for journalists and restrictions on the entry of and movement by foreign correspondents.

Seven of the ten countries with the greatest censorship – Eritrea, Ethiopia, Azerbaijan, Vietnam, Iran, China and Burma – are also among the world’s greatest jailors of journalists, according to CPJ’s annual prison census.

In Saudi Arabia – the country with the third greatest censorship – the monarchy in power does not limit itself to silencing domestic dissidence, and partners with other Governments of the Gulf Cooperation Council in order to assure that criticism of institutions in each of these countries is harshly repressed.

In Ethiopia – fourth in the ranking of countries that censor – the threat of prison has contributed to a strong increase in the number of exiled journalists. The anti-terrorism law approved in 2009, which criminalizes any coverage that according to authorities “foments” or “offers moral support” to illegal groups, has been imposed on many of the 17 journalists who are prisoners of the country’s jails.

Vietnam – the sixth most-censored country – uses a vague law against “the abuse of democratic liberty” in order to incarcerate bloggers, and Burma – the ninth – is supported by the Official Secrets Act of 1923 in order to prevent criticism of its military forces.

In Azerbaijan – the fifth most-censored country – the criminal defamation laws have been extended to social networks and can carry up to six months in jail. Iran, seventh on the list, has one of the world’s strictest Internet censorship regimens, with millions of websites blocked.

The other four countries (Belarus, Equatorial Guinea, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan) were close in finishing the ranking, since they all have every few independent media outlets.

Translated by MLK

We are 1.7 million / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

A woman checks the list of candidates for the municipal elections. (14ymedio)
A woman checks the list of candidates for the municipal elections. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger
14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 21 April 2015 — Years of masks, whispers and fears have made Cubans find delving into political issues as difficult as delving into enigmatic, dark abyss. The few surveys and inquiries conducted independently in recent decades have encountered a suspicion that leads us to question: Why are you asking me that? What will you do with the information?

However, there are times when our actions are the most conclusive and direct of responses. As in the elections held last Sunday for the Municipal Assemblies of People’s Power, where more than 1.7 million people didn’t vote, annulled their ballot, or left it blank, or even voted for one of the only two opposition candidates. continue reading

With as 88.3% participation, any foreign observer would think that we take the district elections very seriously. Amid voter apathy of so many democratic countries, the participation of Cuban voters could be misinterpreted as a sign of civility, but in fact it is evidence of the tight controls under which we have lived for over half a century. Going to the polls does not signal assent or support.

To not vote or abstain has for too long signified a act that marks us as disaffected or counterrevolutionaries, in a country where ideological fidelity opens doors, guarantees futures and results in privileges. On the other hand, the act of selecting our representatives has been taken over by automatic behavior, aware of our limited power to influence the solution of local and national problems.

The district delegate becomes a sort of scapegoat, one whose management capabilities are limited and lacking in autonomy

The district delegate becomes a sort of scapegoat, a target of the complaints and demands, but one whose management capabilities are limited and lacking in autonomy. How many years have to told this people’s representative, in successive “accountability meetings,” about the poor quality of the bread, the deterioration of the streets? Without, in the three decades of their existence, these figures managing to improve anything.

Hence the phrase, “everything, if nothing is going to change,” repeated by millions of voters, who also counsel their friends, “Go to vote so they don’t single you out.” A combination of disbelief and faking it, skepticism and fear, has been the principle force for “going through the motions” of marking a ballot, folding it and placing it in a ballot box as closely watched as it is ineffective. A reflexive gesture, some unavoidable paperwork that many try to get done with as quickly as possible, with neither hope nor confidence.

A combination of disbelief and faking it, skepticism and fear, has been the principle force for “going through the motions” of marking a ballot

To the more than 1.7 million Cubans who this weekend showed their disinterest or disagreement with the elections, the same number or twice as many individuals who think the same might join them, but they are afraid of standing out. For every person who doesn’t enter the polling station, scribbles on the ballot, or just writes nothing on it, should be added many more who wanted to but didn’t dare to be so bold. The voting booth might have hidden cameras – they think fearfully – or the ballot could be marked to detect disobedience, they tell themselves.

The president of the National Electoral Commission, Alina Balseiro, said the nearly six percentage point drop in attendance compared to the last municipal elections was due to the absence of the “hundreds of thousands of Cubans” who are traveling abroad. The official has to know that this explosion of travel is also a way to vote against a system that hampers their personal and professional development within national borders.

It is worth emphasizing that the brave who chose not to give in to their fears are more than double the number of those who are active in the Communist Party. The courage it takes for the former far exceeds the effort to pay the annual dues of an organization that has hijacked the name of the country and boasts of representing the soul of all its citizens. In the ranks of those who refused to validate their vote is, therefore, greater willpower and honesty.

This Sunday, we sent a loud and clear message. Without our agreement, without spaces for us in the national mass media, and even in the face of possible punishments, 1.7 million Cubans stepped from the shadows of faking it to the harsh sun of assuming our positions publicly. A force for change that the government fears and that the dissent should channel.


The Bridgettines, in the Shadows of Power / 14ymedio, Rosa Lopez

The Bridgettines’ Convent/Hotel in Havana. (Holidaycheck)
The Bridgettines’ Convent/Hotel in Havana. (Holidaycheck)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Rosa Lopez, Havana 6 February 2015 — Discreet and elusive, donning gray habits and cross-adorned veils, they attend mass at the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity in Pinar del Río. The three nuns, originally from India, belong to the Order of the Most Holy Savior of Saint Bridget headed by the Italian religious Mother Tekla Famiglietti. Known as the Generalessa, Mother Tekla is one of the most influential women in the Vatican, and her ties to the Cuban government have been reinforced in the last few years.

The Bridgettines ­– a religious order of nuns founded in 1911 in Sweden by Blessed Mary Elizabeth Hesselblad – recently inaugurated a new convent in the city of Pinar del Río. A little more than a decade after opening their impressive headquarters in Havana, this religious order has now turned its attention to Cuba’s far western province. No other religious order on the Island has experienced such rapid growth, which has only been made possible thanks to the longstanding ties between the Mother Tekla and the political élite centered around Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution. continue reading

“While we’ve been waiting for years for [the authorities] to approve a complete restoration of our convent, the Bridgettines have managed to open a new convent, and even built a hostel for tourists,” protested a nun of the Daughters of Charity who chose to remain anonymous.

Last November 26th, Jorge Enrique Serpa, Bishop of Pinar del Río, blessed the new Bridgettine building. Their headquarters are located on what was once a homestead known as “Celestino the Mute’s Farm,” which was sold off by the original owner’s grandchildren due to family quarrels and financial difficulties.

The nuns bought the mansion nestled on a 2.5-acre property thanks to the efforts of Bishop Serpa himself. The diocese helped look for a building, negotiated the selling price with the owners, and helped the nuns sail through the red tape. Everything was undertaken with the utmost discretion, as is characteristic of the Bridgettines.

Work on the property started only a few days after the nuns settled in. The freshly painted façades, the hauling of building materials, and the constant presence of construction workers caught the attention of the residents of Galiano and Cuba Libre, two adjacent communities suffering from a high degree of poverty and social inequality. Nobody knew what was being built. Yet as the chapel was nearing completion, the public was informed that apart from their pastoral work focused on the care of the elderly and the poor or the region, the nuns were planning to build on a ten-room hostel on their property. At present, only a few of the rooms are ready for occupancy, and reservations have to be requested by email. The rate for a double occupancy room is 50 CUC, breakfast included. The hostel also offers a suite for 65 CUC.

No other religious order on the Island has experienced such rapid growth, which has only been made possible thanks to the longstanding ties between the Mother Tekla and the political élite centered around Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution

Time is of the essence. An avalanche of visitors from the United States could begin arriving in the next few months if the U.S. Congress lifts travel restrictions to the Island. The regions of Viñales and María la Gorda, the marinas at Cape San Antonio, and Jutías Key and Levisa Key are among the most important attractions in the western Cuba. Consequently, the city of Pinar del Río would be a mandatory stop on the way to most of these sites. Construction at the Bridgettines’ hostel has picked up in recent weeks.

Under the protection of Bishop Serna, and with their eyes set on a possible upturn in tourism to the province, the Bridgettines are positioning themselves in the hotel market in a city suffering from a stagnant economy, and that for the moment does not have much to offer in the way of accommodations. Mother Tekla Famiglietti’s privileged position allowed her to have beforehand knowledge that the United States and Cuba were negotiating a rapprochement with the Vatican’s support, and especially with the help of Pope Francis.

The Generalessa and the Comandante

The Bridgettines’ first convent in Cuba was inaugurated a few days before 75 opposition members were arrested in what is known as the Black Spring of 2003. At the time, Church–State relations had worsened due to the publication of a pastoral letter from Jaime Cardinal Ortega y Alamino, Archbishop of Havana, in which he called for more economic freedom and social justice. The political tensions at the time heralded the repressive wave unleashed shortly thereafter. Yet Mother Tekla would not be deterred.

In an event* broadcast on March 8, 2003 on Cuban State television, the Generalessa and the Comandante expressed their mutual affection and exchanged accolades. Fidel Castro was made Commander of the Order of Saint Bridget of Sweden, and in exchange, the Cuban Council of State awarded Abbess General Tekla Famiglietti the Order of Félix Varela.

Under the protection of Bishop Serna, and with their eyes set on a possible upturn in tourism to the province, the Bridgettines are positioning themselves in the hotel market in a city suffering from a stagnant economy

Both parties plotted the creation of the Havana convent in 2000 during Mexican president Vicente Fox’s inauguration. From that moment on, the Generalessa –born in southern Italy in 1939, and Abbess General of the Bridgettines since 1981 – would strengthen her friendship with Castro, showering him with gratitude and affection. When the Comandante suffered a fall during a 2004 speech in the city of Santa Clara, Mother Tekla rushed to send him a letter, published in the official Cuban press, wishing him a speedy recovery.

The Cuban Catholic Church hierarchy reacted angrily at the publicized presence of the political élite at the Havana convent’s opening ceremony. Three days after the event, the Cuban Conference of Bishops released a stern reprimand against Famiglietti in a communiqué calling on her “to clearly differentiate the person of Holy Father John Paul II…and his scriptural foundations ­– as is to be expected of him – characterized by dignity, respect, serenity, and moderation, and not associate the Holy Father with excessive praise in words and deeds, as we have seen some Church figures do at these events.”

As a gesture many understood as evidence of a break with the Bridgettines, Jaime Cardinal Ortega boycotted the convent’s inauguration. Moreover, the Cuban Conference of Bishops let it be known very clearly in its statement that “no Cuban bishop or clergy designated to officially represent the Archdiocese of Havana or the Cuban Church was present at the event.”

The advantages accorded the Bridgettines were very frustrating for the over fifteen Catholic religious orders and several priests who had been waiting for many years for a response to their request to serve in Cuba. For their part, the Cuban bishops did not delay in making it perfectly clear that when it came to the matter of the Bridgettines’ presence on the Island, “the Catholic Church in Cuba did not in any way actively participate in bringing them to the country, nor did it plan their arrival, nor did it coordinate their plans in any way.”

Less than one week later the first dissidents of the Black Spring were arrested, as was reported in headlines worldwide. The Bridgettines kept quiet, and just concentrated on moving forward with building their convent and hostel in Old Havana. Their stance caused other Catholic orders to distrust them so that now, fifteen years on, the distrust still lingers. In fact, the levels of distrust have only worsened with the Bridgettines’ purchase of the property in Pinar del Río. 

In response to criticisms lodged against her at that time, the Generalessa assured that former Cuban president Fidel Castro was invited to the inauguration solely out of “Christian love and courtesy,” and that he did not help with the expenses.

In 2004 Mother Tekla found herself in a tight spot. Six novices from India who were living in a convent near Rieti, Italy, went before a prosecutor to lodge a formal complaint against Abbess General Famiglietti, accusing her of resorting to violence, blackmail, and threats. The nuns swore that Famiglietti went so far as to confiscate their passports and health insurance cards. They also went on to claim that they were being so exploited when it came to their work at their convent’s hostel that they had no time to pray. Pope John Paul II himself was forced to intervene, speaking publicly in support of the Generalessa’s work “that has been so valuable to the whole Bridgettine family.” The nuns’ lawsuit was filed away without Mother Tekla ever facing any charges.

The name Tekla Famiglietti would again surface in a Wikileaks cable exposing a meeting she held with American officials in Rome. During their encounter, the Generalessa boasted of having visited Fidel Castro’s home “on numerous occasions,” and that she advocated for the lifting of the US trade embargo on Cuba. By contrast, she did not say one word about the imprisoned dissidents.

Another Wikileaks cable cast doubts on the renovation of the Havana convent without the mediation of the Cuban Catholic Church’s hierarchy. In response to criticisms lodged against her at that time, the Generalessa assured that former Cuban President Fidel Castro was invited to the inauguration solely out of “Christian love and courtesy,” and that he did not help with the expenses.

To Caesar what is Caesar’s…

The waters now seem to have calmed down, and the relationship between the Bridgettines and the Cuban Catholic Church hierarchy has reached a certain level of normality. According to sources close to the Archdiocese of Havana “our relationship has indeed improved, but we still keep a proper distance.” Still, the Bishop of Pinar del Río has served as a key ally in the expansion of the order into his province, and he has finally managed it so that the Bridgettines have won the favor of Cardinal Ortega y Alamino and the Cuban Conference of Bishops.

The Bridgettines have successfully run their hostel in Havana – on Oficios Street in the heart of the historic district – for more than a decade. The sign on the façade reads “Order of the Most Holy Savior of Saint Bridget,” yet the convent’s doors are usually locked.

Lorenzo Montalvo Ruiz de Alarcón y Montalvo, Quartermaster General of the Navy and Minister of Shipbuilding of the Royal Treasury and Bank of Havana, lived in this same building at the end of the 18th century. Many years later, the renowned Café de Copas would also find a home there. Consequently, none other than Eusebio Leal – Havana’s official historian, who also happens to maintain a close relationship with Mother Tekla – supervised the allocation of this historic building to the Bridgettines.

Although he has been the nuns’ key backer in Cuba, Fidel Castro’s retirement from the pubic stage has not in any way diminished the privileges accorded the order

Impeccably restored at a cost of US$4,000,000, raised for the most part by the Generalessa herself, the former mansion now boasts an intercom ensuring access only to guests with reservations. Since religious orders are tax-exempt, even when they run lucrative businesses, the Cuban National Tax Office’s logo is clearly missing from convent’s door.

Upon entering this Havana hostel, one encounters a central courtyard embellished with well-kept plants, and the soothing sound of water flowing from a fountain. A nun of few words greets guests. The hustle and bustle of the streets is left behind. It feels like crossing a temple’s threshold.

The hostel consists of only eleven rooms, and offers no brochures explaining its history. It does not offer direct Internet service either. Reservations must be requested by writing to an email address whose domain is a Cuban domestic server, and then waiting for a response. Several travel sites list and recommend the hostel, but with the same halo of secrecy that surrounds everything associated with the Bridgettines.

The Bridgettines’ new convent in Pinar del Río. (Juan Carlos Fernández)
The Bridgettines’ new convent in Pinar del Río. (Juan Carlos Fernández)

A room in the convent is priced at around 50 CUC a night, and in high season it goes up to 75 CUC. “It’s a very peaceful place, and guests aren’t allowed to bring in another person to spend the night,” says a Polish family that stays there every time they travel to Havana. “And this is a good thing, since we travel a with a small child.”

The real world is outside, on the corner, where a café with live music functions as a meeting point for prostitutes and foreign customers. The nuns are wary of allowing Cuban guests, who they politely refuse, telling them there are no vacancies.

Before long, the Bridgettines will be offering another tourist oasis, but this time, in Pinar del Río. Although he has been the nuns’ key backer in Cuba, Fidel Castro’s retirement from the pubic stage has not in any way diminished the privileges accorded the order. The deal that the Generalessa and the Comandante once reached still stands. With an almost eerie quiet, the Bridgettines have managed to position themselves in the shadows of power.

*Translator’s note: The televised event was in commemoration of International Women’s Day, a national holiday in Cuba. First conceived by German Communist Clara Zetkin in 1910, it became a national holiday in the USSR after the October Revolution of 1917, by order of Vladimir Lenin himself. Since the collapse of the Soviet Empire, most former Communist countries no longer observe it. It survives in a handful of countries, including Cuba, Russia and North Korea.

Translated by José Badué