Guidelines for the VI Congress of the Party: Update Socialism or Renovate Societal Structures? / Intramuros

By Dagoberto Valdés

Taking into account the absolute and meticulous control enforced by the state in Cuba since 1969 over economic, financial, commercial, and service activities, the Guidelines for the VI Congress are just a drop of water in the desert. Those who know what centralized economy means are well aware that said guidelines are more of the same only with a sense of urgency.

The simple fact that the guidelines come from above to be debated under the supervision of instructors previously trained at a centralized level is a sign that the method and the content are essentially the same. They both come from above, move from the center to the periphery, and are ordered by the powerful for the powerless to obey. The goal is a supporting debate, an opinion survey, an apparent consultation inside well-defined settings. Few believe, but they still put up a show.

That’s why mistrust reigns from right to left even inside the so-called militancy. That’s why any interpretation emulates those of Noah’s Ark. That’s why the results are as foreseeable as 52 years of Revolution put together.

Those who defeat skepticism and with goodwill try to find “something” like an “opening” or a “reform” may look at the first guidelines for an accurate response.

Those who persevere and overcome the initial exorcism destined to sober down the most conservative will find full lessons on in-depth and punctilious control. To say, in the 21st century, that permits will be granted authorizing real estate property transactions is the equivalent of authorizing the use of cell phones or granting entry to a hotel in one’s own country. The idea of contracting personnel to work at small businesses though as neighborhood joints without any incidence in the overall production of goods takes us back to pre-industrial revolution times. That’s what transpires out of the new list of “trabajos por cuenta propia” (self-employment occupations). It is a compilation of medieval arts and crafts ranging from fortune-teller to button liners in the era of the zipper. Implying an actual contribution to further development is like competing with Breton.

Communism like any totalitarian regime can not be reformed. There are only two things to hope for out of this new mockery of make-up artistry with a tainted “actualization” flair. Either real reforms that would eventually bring down the centralized control that keeps the economy and our lives stagnant take place or nothing really happens other than the regular entertainment while the government catches a breath.

“Actualization” is an elusive word. Pope John XXIII spoke of “aggiornamento” when the Council was summoned to renovate San Pedro’s marred boat. By updating a thousand-year-old institution, a rejuvenating breeze of change blew through the window. Later, the church renovated itself with little fanfare and a lot of nuts. A political system is not a church. It could be a new religion, though, with its own dogma and immovable commandments. The 20th century showed that it was a lot easier to bring church up-to-date than to reform socialism, a system that eventually perished in battle without any fanfare or nuts for that matter.

In today’s globalized world, actualization means definitely discarding the nostalgic schemes of authoritarian centralization of every single aspect of human life. That includes the family, teaching methodology, the economic model, the political system, culture, and the anthropological vision of reality.

Actualization is not intended to be the disguising of a culture of imposition and exclusion through false pretense of consultation and participation. Actualization means replacing the essence and methods of the from-above-down culture, the rhetoric of debating what comes from above, and the debating and resending of bogus suggestions by a culture of inclusion and democratic linear management.

Furthermore, it is a change in paternalistic family life into participative family relationships that respectfully promote initiative and individuality.

As to education, it is about putting behind us the current methods of imposition and manipulation of the individual and his right to have an opinion. Today, education is a mere ideological instrument that reproduces slaves not citizens. Civic schools resemble a Taliban seminary on secular religion about totalitarian Utopias. Thus, the embellishment of an indoctrinating system is not enough. It is imperative to embrace a liberating pedagogy that promotes participation and “teaches to think above all”. That’s how Father Felix Varela two centuries ago, and the illustrious Brazilian pedagogue Paulo Freire years later, taught. Our democracy depends on the school we choose.

On the other side, in the 21st century, the actualization of the economic model can not be a safeguard of the state’s control while breaking sound market laws. It can not impede individual initiative or foolish entrepreneurs with medieval trades. We will not head into the future by chaining the train to the inefficient and rusted frame of a system that never worked not even for us, as it was stated and hurriedly denied by Fidel Castro. According to ancient language, actualization means liberating the productive forces when the yoke of the productive relations is broken.

In Cuba, that means releasing the internal mechanisms that constantly suffocate the spirit of its citizens and their unstoppable desire to keep their heads afloat. International maneuvering to impede commerce with a country is as shameful as using bureaucratic mechanisms as well as draconian inspectors to prosecute and asphyxiate honest citizens pursuing a better future on the island. The aftermaths of this native embargo are the black market, the underground economy, the financial mafia, the traffic of personal influences, and the eventual collapse of flagship enterprises like some located in the mining city of Moa. It is the byproduct of not liberating the human spirit and what is needed for personal fulfillment and social progress as the only way to pump some content into that soulless shell the paternalistic state economy has turned into.

Actualization of the economic model also means accepting that economy has its own rules which are not to be strangled by politics. Authentic economic reforms are up-to-date if they convey respect for private property be it personal, family, co-operative or mixed. There will be no reforms, productivity or dreams without strict respect of private property. A look at the 20th century is enough to realize how inefficient an experiment leading nowhere and nurtured with blood and fire, no metaphor here, can be. Nobel Prize winner Amartya Asen once said in his most paradigmatic work that economic development is inextricably linked to the freedom of both individuals and nations.

The guidelines for the VI Congress of the PCC (Communist Party of Cuba) could however be a starting point to correct the path of a train and thus bring substantial changes to otherwise extremely timid reforms. Sadly, as the government likes to say, the reforms are just a push so the old train does not get off the tracks on the way to the same destiny we have been backpedaling to for five decades without moving a single millimeter.

I do not think the structural changes they talked about three years ago but never pushed forward should be radical or abrupt. It is in the best interest of a vast majority to implement them gradually. Yet, gradual does not necessarily mean clogging the line that pumps oxygen into the economy.

The economic laws that govern the market should not be implemented to create an inhuman unruly world that dumps millions of have-nots into the social gutter. The recent world crisis proves economic as well as political and social regulations are a must.

Notwithstanding, I hope the current turning point and the coming debates are an opportunity to listen to each other as a first step. According to a journalist friend, discrepancies should be decriminalized next so that everyone freely contributes his best to a prosper nation. Then, a true “actualization” will really get rolling if those who think differently are not condemned, disqualified, and called mercenaries and worms.

As long as some follow orders from above and disavow their fellow citizens who think differently, Cuba will not embrace “actualization”. It will rather face social disintegration and surely the loss of national identity and civic sovereignty which are the backbone of the sole existence of a Cuban unique character. Nobody wants that. Thus, not a single Cuban should be excluded and talks should be as broad, plural, and welcoming as Noah’s Ark even if only two of each species are granted access.

Renovating without targeting the causes of the system’s dysfunctional core is like trying to keep it afloat by sheer will. Economy and politics do not survive based on this kind of secular faith. They count on ethics as their vision and guideline, technical knowledge as instrument, efficiency as end result, and broader social justice, peaceful coexistence, and integral human development as visible results, able to be perfected..

The structural remodeling of the social environment assumes the following:

An anthropological change leading to an ethic of freedom and responsibility.

An economic transformation that fosters private initiative either by association or mixed and the respect of market laws as well as necessary fitting and moderate regulation on the side of the state and the civic society as economic role player.

A political shift towards the rule of law, democracy, civic participation, and multi-party government.

A social move promoting a starring independent, creative, and friendly civic society as both a new definition of democracy and methodology.

A change in education that proposes a liberating, plural and participative pedagogy.

A cultural transformation towards a vital and shared synthesis between loyalty to the roots of our identity and a refreshing way of life permeated by diversity.

A change in the way we relate to the environment and nature in order to promote a more humane holistic ecology.

A change in the country’s interrelation with the world fomenting an opening without ideological or mercantile barriers and a full integration with the diaspora and the international community.

Other changes and views should round out this opinion. In order to do so, we must have the opportunity of exercising critic and proposing solutions.

Cuba, that is Cuban men and women wherever they are, must exercise their right to reshape to nation we all belong to.

Translated by Wilfredo Dominguez.

November 25 2010

Self-employment, Once Again! / Intramuros

by Karina Gálvez

Once again the legalization of self-employment awakens dreams… and disappointments. Sometimes one gets tired of becoming emboldened and then almost at the same moment discouraged for the same reason that you were encouraged. It is already a custom in Cuba. But we know so well the actions of the Cuban authorities, we can say, as a friend heard some time ago, there are not prejudices, only experiences. This self-employment, as designed, will not save the Cuban economy, much less improve the living conditions of citizens.

The new list of self-employment choices promotes dreams in an important sector of the Cuban people because working for yourself is within the human being, part of its nature and more so for Cubans who have a special spirit of entrepreneurship. Also, because it is the recognition of a right that seemed lost for the umpteenth time on this island. I could not ignore that it also represents an oxygenator of a domestic economy that is intolerably weak. And because, despite everything, you believe that it will be possible to live better.

But immediately after building up hopes, questions and responses arise that lower our spirit and provoke disappointment. The list of legal self-employment jobs is truly offensive. The entrepreneurial spirit of Cubans can not be confined to a list where the most profitable business is a small restaurant with a maximum capacity of 20. Not to mention other work, no doubt honorable but also primitive, just enough to get by in the economy of a cave, such as: button sewer, fancy-dress dancer, carter. The figures of dancing couples, musical duos or bands are specifically named: Benny Moré dancing partners, or Amistad duo. We do not know exactly what this means; if one wants to devote himself to dance as self-employment, must it be called “Benny Moré dance partner” to be legal? It turns out that the Cuban people, after 52 years of sacrifice to build the most just social system in the world, now face a situation of insecurity and massive layoffs never expected nor imagined in the minds of those who believe that the Cuban State is the protective father that it has always claimed to be. And the state is faced with the impossibility of solving this situation. Or rather, it is impossible to resolve this situation without its losing its absolute economic power.

However, since it is not prepared to do this, the Cuban State has authorized the new businesses with much reserve. Self-employed workers have emerged as a “necessary evil” for the current Cuban economic system. It is said that it is a remedy for the mass dismissals that are already underway in state enterprises. I do not believe that the government thinks that by doing the jobs in the published list anyone can make up for — we won’t say the salary — but the security that legal employment represents. We must keep in mind that many workers add to their wages from what they can “resolve” in their work places: resources, the ability to use a service, perks for themselves and their friends. In losing a job in Cuba, more is lost than a salary. It is not these kinds of jobs, mostly from medieval times, that can placate the discontent and confusion of being unemployed in a system where there is a single employer.

Therefore, after becoming acquainted the information given, we find that the legal possibility is not real.

The truth is that to make a change in Cuba, however superficial it may be, takes more than legislation. It requires the creation and accommodation of a different background of economic relations that enable the success of self-employed work. For self-employment to be possible and truly successful (albeit on a small scale for now) conditions are required for which the Cuban government has not announced any strategy.

What would it take for self-employment to be a viable possibility in Cuba?

A wholesale market infrastructure would need to be created.

“The optimum is a wholesale market with different prices. But we are not going to be able to do that in the coming years.”

Marino Murillo Jorge, Minister of Economy

Granma, 24 September 2010

It is clear that access to basic resources will not be facilitated. It will be necessary to purchase them in the retail market, with similar prices for those who purchase in quantities for consumption as for those investing in large quantities

This, of course, affects prices and profits of the self-employed.

But more serious is that the retail market in Cuba is almost without supplies of products for the consumer. How could it supply the mass of self-employed persons that could be generated?

The articulation of a financial infrastructure would be necessary and important.

“… discussed with the Central Bank of Cuba how to make viable the possibility so that those who decide to return to work on their own can access a bank loan to jump-start their chosen activity”

Granma, 24 September 2010

It is laughable that it would be necessary to apply for credit for the kinds of self-employment published in the list of the Ministry of Labour and Social Security. The lack of resources experienced by the average Cuban is obvious to everyone. However, what is needed is the possibility of obtaining credit to streamline and revitalize the changes that are hoped for with the new openness to self-employment. Because it is needed now and because we hope that it could be used in the future to expand businesses.

But the lack of security for self-employment hinders the possibility of credit. Making access to bank credit viable is a mechanism already established and experienced since the rise of central and commercial banks, long ago. The problem is not the mechanism but the circumstances. A self-employed person who is exposed to the possibility of losing the business at any time because of the need to engage in illegalities will not qualify for bank credit, unless the Central Bank of Cuba establishes very flexible credit standards and is willing to take a risk that can not be calculated without a large margin of error. Bad credit policy will over the long run harm the national economy just as it has recently hurt the global economy.

It would require the establishment of fair and affordable taxes.

The enforcement mechanisms, some of the most anticipated information for those involved, have already been published. Taxes continue to pose an unreasonable burden on the self-employed. It is obvious that the self-employed worker desires to earn an income slightly higher than a state employee who delivers only his labor without risking anything. Taxes almost extinguished the burgeoning self-employment in the nineties. Thanks to the burden they represented, a large percentage of businesses had to shut down. With the publication of the new system, I believe that before too long the first businesses that open will close, and that the number of start-ups will be significantly lower than in 1994.

One of the objectives of the Cuban government in stimulating self-employment is the raising of revenue, by means of taxes. Therefore, self-employment will also take a hit in the event that the State does not get the expected amount of revenue from taxes.

A workable system of control of revenue and expenditures would be necessary.

This was one of the main weaknesses of the previous system of taxes. And the conditions are there for this to not improve. The current self-employed persons have income and incur expenses that are very difficult to control. The sources of raw materials and goods are mostly illegal (obtained on the black market) and it is impossible to use legal sources, either because they do not exist or because they are expensive and constitute an unbearable burden for business.

Until now, neither efficient nor sufficient mechanisms to control expenditures and revenue have been established. So fiscal policy will try to be as restrictive as possible, without a reliable base of information. And once again this will put an end to self-employment.

It would be necessary to expand the domestic market.

As long as foreigners who invest in Cuba can invest in big businesses, discrimination against Cuban nationals is also strongly reflected in the economy. The legalized self-employment does not cover activities with large and important revenue for the Cubans. A glance at the aforementioned list is sufficient to be convinced of that. However, some may be lucky enough to obtain significant profits by special opportunities and advantages of place, time, and ability. How to invest that money in Cuba? Unable to expand the business (the list is restricted to a minimum), you cannot buy a home, you cannot buy a car, you cannot travel freely. The money will go from hand to hand and will be little more than the exchange of goods in the early years of prehistoric trade. If the money is going to circulate only among the self-employed, the level that is set by law, Cuban economic development cannot be glimpsed on the horizon.

Clearly, those who get fairly significant amounts of money will try to raise their standard of living by means of the black market. But we will always be exposed to the implementation of the ley maceta* (still in effect).

The expansion of commerce should place private and state enterprises on an equal footing. Working under normal conditions, little time will be needed to develop a broad and diverse market.

After the disappointment.

Of course, in verifying this reality and, perhaps, others not mentioned here, one is discouraged. It is very probable that of those who build up hopes at the beginning, only a small percentage will be able to bring their own business to reality. I am inclined to think they will not be able. I hope this is not so. Hopefully, as has happened on other occasions, despite everything, new self-employed people can emerge. Hopefully we will not be faced with disappointment and we will fill small spaces with small businesses that are always more efficient than the large state enterprises that we have to cope with, at a disadvantage, in unfair competition. Perseverance has saved the Cuban nation many times from succumbing to calamity. Self-employment is an economic right based on the natural right to private enterprise, of achieving survival by our own efforts.

If there is a fence that limits the exercise of this right, push it calmly but firmly, with nothing more than the serious and constant exercise of it. It is legitimate and necessary.

It is not a matter of self-employment to passively accept all the absurd conditions that constrain it. The only novel element of the new self-employment legislation is the hiring of labor. It does not represent in any way a sign of voluntary openness. But it is a step that the Cuban government has been forced to take and could be the economic rift that breaks the dam of the totalitarian system, if we do not yield to the temptation to conform without trying to open it further day by day.

Every time we gain degrees of personal freedom in the economic sphere, we will gain degrees of personal freedom at all levels, and we will need more and greater freedom, for which we have the necessity, and the moral obligation to demand for ourselves for others.

With this we will be helping to convert what in Cuba has been called “self-employment” into the free exercise of private enterprise; what have been called timbiriches*, into respectable micro businesses, and what has been called “the self-employed” into small, private entrepreneurs. Finally, we will be contributing to the birth of an open market economy, efficient, supportive, and subsidiary.

This is really the only thing that can save the Cuban economy: freedom of economic initiative, taking into account the laws of the market, with a genuine openness to domestic and foreign investment, with the principle of efficiency, and seeking equality of opportunity.

Karina Gálvez Chiú (Pinar del Río, 1968)
Degree in economics, Professor of finance.
Director, Grupo de economistas del Centro Civico
Founding member of Editorial Board of the Magazine Convivencia (Coexistence)
Lives and works in Pinar del Rio.

*Translator’s notes:
Ley maceta is the popular name for laws that punish illicit enrichment
Timbiriche is the popular name for a very small business such as a stand or a kiosk.

Translated by ricote

November 25 2010

With Feet Firmly on the Ground / IntraMuros

By Sironay González Rodríguez

One could say that the vast majority of Cubans are seriously concerned about the unsupportable reality of our present and the blurred vision of the future of Socialist Cuba. Those who apparently fell asleep in the arms of compliance bristle at the idea that the political system now governing us cannot last much longer.

It is Cuba’s present and future that should be important now, principally to the leaders of our nation. Our past struggles for independence and against old dictatorships should serve us to learn from the mistakes made and to remind us that we Cubans defend our rights at any price, which seems to have been forgotten.

Unfortunately, those responsible for the direction of the country are still living in the Sierra Maestra. They have not come down to solve our problems.

I congratulate them on their victories and achievements of 50 years ago, though I don’t know if I thank them, ut we have problems that must be solved with feet firmly planted on the ground.

November 4, 2010

Fariñas and Sakharov: The Totalitarians Cannot Be Reformed / IntraMuros

Cuba dawned today in the monotony typical of these systems. But a text message broke into my room at 5 am: Farinas won the Sakharov Prize. The morning dawned differently for me and for many other Cubans who began to send from heart to heart — that is from cellphone to cellphone — the good news. The third Cuban had received this prestigious prize from the European Parliament. In 2002 it had been Oswaldo Paya and in 2005 the Ladies in White.

Farinas and Sakharov: What relationship could be found between these two men? Having wanted to be the person, in a system whose anthropological damage is precisely the blockade of freedom and of personal and social independence. They are men who breached their respective walls. Who, with their lives at death’s door, were a window for the light of freedom. Cuba is a blue-green island. Her soul is still free and supported when the world recognizes the value of men like Farinas who, with their solidarity, offer their lives for the freedom and rights of others.

Today official Cuba dawned as gray as ever, but the real Cuba is freer and happier with the Sakharov Prize for Santa Clara’s psychologist and journalist. As I was talking to Coco, as we call him, and asking him to say something for the magazine Convivencia (Coexistence), he said to me: Say that it is a prize for all the people of Cuba and that I dedicate it to Orlando Zapata Tamayo and to Pedro Luis Boitel.

We call on all other Cubans to ask ourselves, what can we do with our lives to make us worthy of men and women like Boitel, Zapata, Farinas and the Ladies in White, and all the others who continue, into the breach, peacefully, to bring on that day when this kind of sacrifice, and the prize given to those who offer themselves for others, are only a grateful memory of a sovereign nation.

Dagoberto Valdes

October 21, 2010


It is the fourth time a Cuban has received this international recognition.

By Dagoberto Valdés

The renowned Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez has been chosen to receive the prestigious Prince Claus Award for Culture and Development, one of the most prestigious on the European continent. The award will be bestowed in December, 2010.

The Prince Claus Award was established in 1997 in honor of he who gave it its name and heritage, Prince Claus, the consort of Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. Each year a select and competent international jury is convened in Amsterdam by the Foundation that bears the same name, a leader among the sociocultural NGOs, which is devoted specifically to promoting cultural diversity in developing countries. The top prize is awarded in the Royal Palace in Amsterdam on December 8, to mark the birthday of the late prince, and the ten other awards are presented in the Embassies of the Netherlands in the respective countries of the winners.

Yoani Sanchez has received one of these ten awards for her work as a communicator, and her educational efforts to develop citizen journalism in the difficult conditions in Cuba. Yoani has received numerous international awards among which are the Ortega y Gasset Prize for digital journalism, she has been chosen by Time magazine as one of 100 most important people in 2008 and, almost coincidentally with the distinction of the Netherlands, Yoani has just been chosen among the 60 personalities in the world who have promoted freedom of expression, by the International Press Institute (IPI) on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of this institution.

Cuba continues to receive the attention of the Prince Claus Fund; this is the fourth time its International Jury has awarded this important prize to a Cuban. In 1999 the magazine Vitral of Pinar del Rio, received the top prize shared with the Qatari television network Al Jazeera and the Algerian-French playwright Mohamed Fellag. In 2008 the versatile plastic artist Tania Bruguera received a Prince Claus Award at the residence of the Embassy of the Netherlands and in 2009 another of these awards was received by the editor, critic, translator and cultural animator of the Criterios Center, Desiderio Navarro. Again, it is Cuba that wins and is recognized for the plurality of its culture.

Yoani, who is a permanent contributor to our magazine, receives the congratulations and support of the entire Coexistence project team, many of whom know her. She deserves not only the prestige this laurel brings to her name from the Foundation that awarded it, which has been dedicated for over a decade to the promotion and development of the most rich and fruitful expressions of the cultures of people all over the world.

September 9, 2010

If We Want Everything To Stay the Same, Everything Must Change

By Jesuhadín Pérez.

Things are going badly for Cuba. People lose freedom while trying to get it, and starve to death when asking for justice. Those in power have no ears to listen to the solutions to people’s problems, solutions that would jeopardize historical powers.

This is the contradiction between form and substance. In other words the dead weight of privileges, against the evolution of society and its citizens.

The presidential chairs get stuck to the posteriors of people who have a very peculiar way of understanding democracy. Democracy is a form of government, not a nobility title. In Cuba the time has arrived to turn the page, to respect its people and the natural processes that shape its history.

The history of humankind is filled with men who muzzled their people to try to stop the natural course of events. The fact that all of them eventually fell is no consolation. Our case makes us feel like being buried alive. A pity. We’ve had ten years since the 21st century started. We should be closer to a perfect government.

Here, everyone wants change, you just need to ask to see for yourself. Everyone shouts it if they have the courage, or if they feel safe in the liberties they have been granted by another country. Absolutely everyone wants change, everyone but those in power.

The privileges of those in power are in danger when we talk of change, that is why their main task is to stop and reverse the process using everything at hand… violence or mediation. What a pity that many new-found mediators give higher priority to compromising and flirting than to mediating! What a pity that they go after institutional interests instead of the well-being of the parties involved in the conflict! Even worst, what a lack of historical conscience among those in power. Do they really believe they will be able to hold the system together using banners and slogans, or letting some steam out whenever it seems on the verge of exploding, just so they can close the steam pipe again a moment later?

Just one thing has saved this country till now, just one thing placates the anger and discontent of the masses: A Change. But not the kind of change that consists in giving away lands overrun with the invasive marabou weed, or turning service industry workers into rent paying employees; no. Cuba needs A Change, a big one. Risky. Compromising. Overarching. Resounding. Something everyone can feel. Something that shakes the whole nation. If this tiny changes are the prelude to something for the good, then they are welcome, but if they are just tactical changes they will perish in less than ninety days, because the expectations of the Cuban people are great, and their needs are even greater.

If the Cuban political class wants to keep things as they are, then it will be necessary that everything, absolutely everything changes.

Jesuhadín Pérez Valdés

Founding member of the editorial board of Convivencia magazine.
He lives in Pinar del Río, Cuba.

Translated by: Xavier Noguer

Interview with Juan Juan Almeida*

Photo: Dagoberto Valdes, Juan Juan Almeida, Yoani Sanchez

Yoani Sanchez: 1. You are an important public figure, especially because you are the son of one of the historic icons of the Cuban Revolution, the commander Juan Almeida Bosque. How have you dealt with these circumstances? Have you taken advantage of them? Have they become a burden?

Juan Juan Almeida: Figure? Importance? Me? I can tell you, one morning in October a General chose me, saying with reverence that I was the favorite son of my commander father, and a few years later, this same General kicked me out, almost literally, from the funeral of my father.

You see, experience is the referent, and what you could have called “circumstance”, has been, is and will be for me, my whole life. It’s in my blood, in my genes, in my surname. I would not be able – nor do I want – to give up what I am. My father is not and was not a burden.

I don’t think much before speaking and I always say what I think. I have already said it, I have thought about it, I reaffirm it: If I were to be born again, I would not want a similar father, I would want the same one.

To say that I took advantage of him, of his position, of his power, excuse me, that would also be relative. By the way, my father had nine children, there are eight of us siblings, why are you interviewing me? I don’t think it’s just because I’m the son of a Comandante.

2. I want to wrap up the topic of your father with this question and then talk about you. The folkloric image of Comandante Juan Almeida is that of a man of the people, fun, down to earth and transparent. No excesses or abuses of power have been attributed to him. Do you agree with that image? How was he as a family man?

Folkloric image? Wow, Yoani, you come up with such phrases!

Well, let’s say that in some ways I agree with that image if “down to earth” means that one is not a complicated person. More than “a man of the people” he was Cuban, very “Cuban” and very human. The day I went to the morgue I went up to him and kissed him. He was on a stretcher, serious, cold – that was not my father. And although it’s difficult for a son to give an unbiased opinion, today I would say that my father’s smile was something incredible, fascinating, the most beautiful one in the world.

I remember when I was a child I loved to run my fingers over the marks that his battles had left on his body and he would tell me proudly, with a smile, these happened here, those happened over there, this one happened in El Uvero. So I know each centimeter of my father’s body, an extremely tender man who paradoxically died without saying “I love you”. Maybe that’s why he took refuge in his songs. He composed one for me, I Want to be a Sailor, and every time I hear it my heart crumples up.

My father was what I would like to be someday: unique.

But that’s enough, let’s change the topic. I get sentimental and I’m terrified of suffering.

3. From reading your book, Memories of an Unknown Guerrilla, and from other testimonies of people close to you, one gets the impression of a certain disastrous quality in your conduct: an undesirable student in several schools, a terrible State security agent, failed businessman and irredeemable bohemian. If you were forced to say something good about yourself, what would you say?

Ah, but were you saying bad things about me? You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If I had been a good agent for the organs of State Security, I bet you would be criticizing me right now. If I had been a “successful” businessman, would you be complimenting and envying me? And if I were not a bohemian, I wouldn’t know poems and this interview would be a boring antic, flattering and pedantic.

Look at that, it rhymes!

A while ago you called me “an important figure”; now, “disastrous” and “undesirable.” Hell, woman, you’re acting like the General. Look, you know who I am? I am Juan Juan and, by the way, I love saying my name. I am a Havanan by birth and in my heart. When I was very little and the carpets were rolled out, someone would always whisper: “the son of Comandante Almeida just arrived.” Later, when my daughter was a little girl and I would take her to school with her mother, her friends would say: “Indira’s father just arrived.” As you can see, my friend, the same way I am my father’s son, I am my daughter’s father. So that’s what I am: Indira’s father, Consuelo’s husband, Púbila García’s son, Juan Almeida’s son, my siblings’ brother, my friends’ friend. In conclusion, I am a guy who is many things, who loves to live his life and, as opposed to others, does not dream of that image of being an intelligent man. I am not a victim, I am not a hero, I have no pretensions of being a leader and even less a role model; no parties, no groups. I am only a human being with defects and fed up with so many people who have fantasies of fixing the world, which of itself is not even round. I think that a good chaos can be something fantastic!

4. In your youth and because you came from a family like yours, you were involved with that group of young men know popularly as “daddy’s boys”. Are you still friends with any of them? What happened to that pleiad?

Wouldn’t it really sound better to ask what happened to my group of friends? Well, all right, you like “pleiad”, I’ll use “pleiad.”

I am not going to mention their names, but all my friends, like all “friends”, some are here, others are elsewhere, others in the beyond.

Before, I used to talk to them a lot, and would even visit the ones here or elsewhere. But after suffering something as emotional as the persecutions were and are, being followed, arrested, interrogated, marginalized, excluded, etc., one has to learn to live with his present. I see no reason to affect or contaminate or want to convince anyone. My mother used to tell me: Juan Juan, I raised you to be a little man. And that’s it, I believed it.

I separated from my friends in order to protect them all, also from some relatives. I would have been a son of a bitch if I had acted any other way. But let me tell you something, the day I was kicked out of my father’s funeral, immediately after, my whole family left that place, they all got the hell out of the Plaza of the la Revolution. Listen well: All of them, Plaza of the Revolution. It’s not easy. From there I went home and I locked myself in to cry alone. And you know what helped me? The many phone calls, the great number of friends who, like you, know that my phone is always “congested.” Oh, and more than six thousand e-mails. I’m not an angel, I’ve said it, but that seemed to me enough to believe that I’m not so bad and that I had been able to sow a bit.

Did I tell you that a long time ago I removed from my dictionary the words “enemy,” “victory,” “defeat”; and because it rhymes with “combat” [in Spanish], I also removed “debate”.

Suffering terrifies me; so does power. I know them, I have seen them since childhood, they go hand in hand. Whoever prefers power should always understand that definition clearly, in its strictest sense, so as not to commit acts contrary to the duties imposed by the law, nor satisfy the personal interests of those who exercise it by abusing their authority and acting without respect for the law, decrees or constitutions. I don’t want that kind of power, I prefer to smile calmly.

By the way, and in conclusion, “daddy’s boys” is one of the many phrases that only create division and although it may seem funny to you, it’s quite discriminatory and exclusionary toward that “pleiad” that you call “daddy’s boys.” Not everything is absolute, the apple doesn’t look the same from the ground as from the sky.

5. Your current drama is described as one of a sick person who needs health care overseas where, in addition, your family lives, while the regime will not let you leave the country. What reasons have they given for denying you an exit visa? What do you think the real motives are? What do you think you would have to do or what would have to happen for you to finally get on a plane to leave Cuba? Will you return to live in this country if you manage to leave?

First, let’s put this in context: I have a life, not a drama. I was born with a genetic incurable illness, I don’t like talking about it, and I detest acting the victim. In the ’80s my conditions started to cause me pain and periods of being an invalid. I tried the best-known Cuban experts without finding any solution, including calling at the office of my father one afternoon because, and he had told me this, Minister Raul Castro had tried to find some Korean doctors because, among other things, he was also concerned about my case. I went to the Koreans, various sessions of acupuncture and other techniques but they didn’t resolve my problems. Go ask Raul, he must remember it. It was then when, through a decision of a commission of MININT and MINSAP, my medical records were sent to an international conference. I started to go to Brussels to see my doctor and things were going well even thought they were getting worse. The reasons, I don’t know. I received threats, arrests, persecutions, a ton of things; but an explanation, nothing.
Why don’t they let me go? I have no idea. I don’t know my interrogator nor anyone in Villa Marista. Nor can I accept that it’s on account of my father ordering it, because I don’t lack witnesses who destroy that hypothesis.

I have no doubt, that it’s a whim of someone who literally can piss on our Constitution, having forgotten the Hippocratic oath of the Minister of Health, to silence the highest leadership of the Ministry of the Interior and the President of the National Assembly.

Who has so much power? Fuente Ovejuna, señor. It’s because he can liquidate me, make me suffer pain, keep me from my daughter with no regard at all, from my wife, my family, he can put me in a cell in a secret case. But this hard-hearted pride will destroy his prestige because everyone looks and asks, why is the President of the Councils of State and of Ministers of the Republic of Cuba so taken with the idea of fucking over a guy like me? The answer is, I don’t know, it could be pride.

Am I going to return? I’m going to answer the same as I told a Colonel who interviewed me one day: my interest is in coming back — this I’ve repeated — but look, first I have to leave.

That which I’ve made clear is that if I leave illegally, I’ll return illegally.

6. It’s going around that you made at least one attempt at an illegal exit from Cuba. The incomprehensible is that, according to rumor, you guys were caught “red-handed” in a bus? Can you be more explicit?

Yes, but first I have to make clear that it wasn’t one, it was two attempts at illegal exit, or almost three. The first failed because the raft sank, fortunately next to the shore, I have at least two friends that can confirm it.

The second, is that one that many know: one afternoon they called me to say that, if I wanted to leave illegally, I was to show up dressed in white at 7 AM in a cafeteria that is located at the entrance to Lenin Park in the outskirts of the capital.

That I did, on May 6, 2009, out of pure desperation. I already said that I wrote letters, I already said I’d begged, I already said that I’d interviewed, I already said that they ignored me and there was no option other than an illegal exit. Besides, it’s already part of this old and sad story that sometimes seems spent: dreams, cries, frustrations, destroyed families — in the end, I said that on the bus we were 70-and-some-odd people.

Some said that God had abandoned us, and others, that He had simply saved us from a death on the high seas. The fact was that at 9 PM — by luck or disgrace, I don’t know — after hours on the road, the transit police detained the bus at the highway police control point in the city of Manzanillo. They took us to a police station, they took our identity cards and cell phones, they gave us a talking to in a theater, and then they divided us into groups. I remained with those who stayed overnight in that station. They put us in cells, and there, thrown here and there, we spent that first night together.

The next day, early, after breakfast, they took away our belongings, they took our fingerprints, they took statements and then locked us up in the same cells that were open before and to describe that now would be meaningless. At that time I learned that some of my fellow travelers had tried to illegally leave the country so many times and already knew too well the police procedures. After a while they returned all our belongings minus phones and identity cards, they offered us lunch and we rode the same bus, filming us as we rode, to take us to the delegation of MININT of Bayamo. But imagine it, a bus, with sixty-odd passengers tried to leave Cuba illegally; it was a noisy bomb running up the ghoulishly fascinated streets of Manzanillo, maybe that’s why many people in that town wanted to stand on the sidewalks to watch us pass. At first I thought they would throw stones or the like, but none of that, girl, people gave us examples of their solidarity. That was touching.

We got to Bayamo, were interrogated, taken to Havana, secret houses and even a thorough search of my house, a real atrocity. At last, after several days I left that nightmare with a hood over my head and I’m still required for many months to go and sign in at Villa Marista. I’ve said many times, I do not want to go sign, I want a trial, a trial to accept my own guilt, and the guilt of those who, by not answering my letters and leaving me in a legal limbo also becomes clear, they forced me and do force me to choose an illegal option. A situation and a suggestion that both, still, continue.

But what few know is that there was “almost” a third illegal departure, this last I told them personally in Villa Marista, I told them I would call the national and international press, meet them at the Malecon and get into a raft. Before, of course, I would also tell the Miami press that someone, a boat, a coast guard ship, a speed boat, whatever, something needed to come and wait for me in international waters. I have a visa. I’m will not stop asking or trying to get out, legal or illegal, that part doesn’t interest me, I need to go to the doctor, hug my family, because no one, absolutely no one, has the right to trample on my rights.

7. Do you consider yourself a dissident, government opponent, or something similar?

You don’t give me many options! I don’t consider myself a dissident or an opponent and much less “something similar.” I learned to get along, I’m everything and nothing. I have political opinions but I’m not political, I have a blog but I’m not a blogger, I have friends in the army and friends not in the army, friends who are foreigners and friends who are not foreigners, I’m a friend of Ventolera (that skinny lowlife they say is an expert at stealing clothes off the clotheslines) but I’m not a thief, I have a voice but I’m not a speaker, I have many gay friends but… Well, this is a topic we will talk about later.

Did you know that once, just to shut me up, they offered me work in a prominent place with gifts included? Did I ever tell you about the dissident friend who invited me to participate in his party? Did I tell you that in Villa Marista they constantly invite me to behave myself so they’ll give me the exit permit? Did I mention that a few days ago I received a strange message from the mouth of a General?

Oh, God, I consider myself a living being, an animal, a human, a Cuban, a Havanan who pursues only the welfare of my family, my friends, friends of my friends and my country.

I like a poem by my friend Roger Silverio that says something like:
“I’m tired, my Lord, I’m tired, it is a very large load you have given me
And being tired, I have almost forgotten, you promised me a world restored.”

8. Is it true that you have a private room in Villa Marista, the headquarters of State Security? Have you ever been subjected to cruel treatment, physical or psychological tortures? Do they still, at this point, propose that you work with them?

It’s true and interesting that the times they have taken me to Villa Marista and I had the privilege of sleeping on a bed in the same cell … sorry, I meant “the Presidential Suite.” But look, they have changed my number, the agent assigned to me and even my interrogator. Of course, the latter apologized and explained that he had been working outside of Havana. I do not mention his name because he begged me and I respect his privacy.

The treatment hasn’t been bad, no one has hit me, no one has pulled out my fingernails and they’ve even shown me letters. But beware, a cautionary measure that lasts longer than the sentence for a crime I never committed would be a violation, to be imprisoned for no reason could be an abuse, you feel and see yourself persecuted by people and cars, even to have photos of them is harassment, to not allow me to leave to see a doctor could be a kind of physical torture, and the simple and insignificant fact that they have taken me far from my family on a whim and the command of a lord, could be something like a psychological pressure. Especially when this is often accompanied by a polite, “Be good.”

What if they propose I collaborate? No, it is not that they have asked me, but believe me, I’d be enchanted although according to the manuals I remember from the KGB, there are certain characteristics people should have to “be recruited.” I don’t know if I can talk about these issues without violating any law, but now let me say that I do not fit the profile.

9. Lately you have been given to taking to the streets with signs. What does each of them say? What have you been trying to accomplish with the public protest?

Juan Juan Almeida walking with one of his signs.

No, lately no, I’ve always drawn posters. The first time I was just little boy. I was a José Martí Pioneer and I wanted to be like the apostle. On that first occasion, my sign said “I want to be like Marti.” For the record, I had nothing against the Che Guevara nor the Pioneer slogan [“I want to be like Che”]; but they punished me.

Later, I was in high school, I hung a sheet from the balcony that said in black letters, “Teachers, we students are not coming to the field today, we’re tired, please, replace us.” The teachers didn’t understand that I was asking a favor. That week I didn’t get a weekend pass.

For my wife, my daughter, I have filled the house with posters. In the bath, on the mirrors. Anyway.

In 2005 I was at the Plaza municipality immigration office with a poster that said, “I need permission for me and my wife to leave.” They threw me out. The same year I was at the Plaza of the Revolution with a poster that said the same thing. They detained me and confiscated the poster.

Finally, in 2009, they told me in Villa Marista that my case was closed and I could ask for permission to leave, and the next day they told me they reversed that decision, I went to the Plaza with a placard but this time it was blank. That was the problem, the agents didn’t understand and no matter how much I explained they didn’t believe I was thinking of doing it there. Geez, it’s that smart people are always very complicated.

The last and most recent was in December. An official from Villa Marista assured me that on a certain day they would have a definitive solution to my problem. That day came. Nothing, I felt played with, I grabbed my poster and went in the direction of Raul’s house, they stopped me on 5th avenue; that time it said, “Mr. President, respect the law, respect my rights.”

I never intended to disrespect anyone, I’m not a brave man, my posters aren’t offensive, they don’t create public scandals, I just want to get the attention of the people who run things. Nothing more. I already said in Villa Marista that they love to invent heroes, figures, myths, histories, legends, personages and enemies. They are making me into something I’m not.

10. How many weeks ago did you open your blog on the internet titled, “The Voice of El Morro”? What is the content of your blog? What made you participate in the alternative Cuban blogosphere?

I’ve repeated infinite times that for me, they won’t let me leave because of the whim of my “Mr. President,” because I write letters, I try to leave illegally, etc. etc. etc. I got to this point and I know that I’m not an isolated case, I opened my blog to open a window for everyone who wants to scream, to testify and to expose to the world the face of those of us who today are ghosts. It’s not my intention to pick at anyone’s wounds, I just want the testimony of those people who, for reasons or the whim of a “Don Juan of the pen,” can’t travel from this island or leave it. I want to claim all those who sadly share this absurd prohibition, because rather than separate us it unites us.

It’s simple, there is no double standard or hidden meaning. What is surprising is that some prefer the fear and choose to stay silent hoping the government will pardon them for something they never committed. I understand them, it’s their choice, they have written me hiding behind pseudonyms, but I want facts, not stories. To see you, when you get excited, about putting your face on my blog.

Look, I don’t like this name, “alternative Cuban blogosphere,” it sounds ugly to me and I want to clarify that we are not part of it and we don’t agree with it.

Now I want to tell you a story. One morning someone summoned me to a place, and after much talk a person told me that I resembled a certain Yoani Sanchez. I swear, I had never heard that name and started to wonder about her, with the sole intention of knowing who someone might compare me to. Then I read what Fidel Castro had written in the forward to a book [Fidel, Bolivia and Something More] and my curiosity was piqued. So it happened that, and it was after I’d forgotten that little name, one afternoon I was writing in my house and I received a text message saying, “I am Yoani, if you want to meet me I’m at the home of…” (A friend I don’t want to mention.)

I answered the text message, “Of course, I’ll meet you right now and I am going to kiss your feet,” I said, “If you have washed them.” I dropped everything and went there with the dream of meeting a fawning mulata, tall and delicious.

What a let-down, my friend! At my good friend’s house, on the only sofa, was a white skinny thing with nice legs but too demure for my tastes. And this is Yoani Sanchez? I wondered. So I met an enchanting woman and her husband with his captivating sense of humor. You invited me to your house and I went, I got in the elevator and two young people got in with me, I watched them covertly. One of them had a certain arrogant and dreamy look, and because I am indiscreet I paid particular attention to some metropolitan buttocks. And the boy, well the truth is after looking at those buttocks I didn’t notice anything about him. And in this way I met Claudia Cadelo. And because a beautiful woman is not the youngest, nor the skinniest, nor the one with the smoothest skin or the most stunning hair, but the one who with just a smile and a word can light up your life, I ended up being her friend and the friend of that spectacular guy who is Ciro. Later I met Orlando Luis and I also loved him, and Ivan, Miriam, Ricardo and all those who today are part of my family. What’s more, I can tell you this, and I have told you, so started this crazy fable which, more than a fairy tale, is a story and more than a story is now history.

11. If right now the president of the Republic, General Raul Castro, called you on the phone and asked your advice for solving the problems of Cuba, what would you tell him?

This is not going to happen, but if it did, I couldn’t talk to him right now, I’m talking to Yoani.

Interview by Yoani Sánchez.

*Translator’s Note: This interview is taken from Convivencia’s main website where it appeared, rather than from its blog (which is a part of the website). It is much longer than the typical blog post, but of such humor and interest we thought English-speaking readers would enjoy it. The interview was originally posted on March 30, 2010.

Minutes of the First Convivencia Contest 2010

First Convivencia Literary Contest 2010

Minutes of the Jury

Prize in the Essay category:

Utopia, Challenges and Difficulties in Today’s Cuba. By Dimas Castellanos Marti, of Bayamo, who lives in Havana

Unanimously and in one of the most difficult discussions that taken by this jury, it emerged as the decision in the prize for a creative essay that addresses the current Cuban reality. For the complete and comprehensive analysis of different phenomena in our society and having found the strings that weave the emerging civil society of the island. The successful use of historical profiles and a language reminiscent of teaching that helps make the essay readable in a single sitting without a too heavy burden of academic language.

Prize in the Audiovisual Script category:

When the Other World Ends. By Henry Constantín Ferreiro, de Camagüey

Unanimously, this jury has awarded this work for its attractive dash and daring, with an excellent rhythm that effectively combines real-life scenes with elements of fiction, without losing credibility. This aesthetic combination gives the project its documentary aspect, formidable values and an anti-hieratic tone. The jury took into account the potential of this script to be produced, it has enough aperture to give freedom to the filmmakers. It retrieves a figure of our literature that has been pushed to the limit of its scriptural and social existence.

Prize in the Story category:

The Exit. By Francis Sánchez Rodríguez, de Ciego de Ávila

Unanimously and with the excellence and narrative art and the ability to overwhelm readers with a clean and modern prose, this book of stories has been highlighted by the jury among the others submitted. This collection shows the mastery of a mature writer and clearly has also penetrated in the chords of poetry. The different planes in which the narrative moves drink from the best part of the best Latin American prose, but it is not indebted to it, rather autonomous and very personal.

Prize in the Poetry category:

This is not a poetic art… By Pedro Lázaro Martínez Martínez, of Pinar del Río.

By a majority, the jury found this collection rewarding its renewal, approaching a performance. For its fluid and diverse poetics and because it is never out of tune, despite the dissimilar subject matter it addresses. For both the freshness and depth of his verse: versatile and greatly organic. Because the dialog established respects the sacred spaces of the reader, with an almost architectural precision, allowing a commendable connectivity among the articles that shape the notebook, resulting in a symphony-book.

Prize in Photography:

Impotence. By Ángel Martínez Capote, of Pinar del Río

Unanimously, the jury believes that this photographic triptych contains a bold sequence that builds to a crescendo. It reviews not only the realism and metaphor but also — successfully — the montage. To the eye of the photographer’s is added the expertise of framing and pressing the shutter at the exact perfect moment.

Meeting in Pinar del Rio, together with the Board of Convivencia, June 29, 2010.

The Jury: (in alphabetical order)

Reinaldo Escobar Casas
Maikel Iglesias Rodríguez
Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo
Yoani Sánchez Cordero
Ángel Santiesteban Prats

The Words of Dagoberto Valdés at the Awards Ceremony for the First Literary Contest of the Magazine Convivencia

By Dagoberto Valdés

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Dear Prize Winners, Ladies and Gentleman of the Jury, Friends:

Coexistence Magazine, less than three years old, begins the journey of literary and artistic competitions, next to the wall of a family that has given us a home without borders. After three years spanning the distances, we could mimic the famous poet Fray Luis de León who paid dearly for translating the Song of Songs [during the Inquisition, and when he returned to the classroom after four years in prison, he began his lecture with]: “As we were saying yesterday.”

This is another night of resurrection. We know. Today we can’t fail to recognize the legacy of those Stained-Glass Contests that over more than a decade appreciated and promoted the Cuban literary creation. Then from our original Cathedral, and now from this cathedral of palm fronds of all those who rebuild the national civic fabric.

Any resurrection emerges from some previous life, undoubtedly, but it also opens the door to a new life. This is a small crack for the light of civil society in Cuba. May the multiple chinks in the door that illuminate the interior of the island be joined together. An aperture for humanistic creation and academic skill. Another way to serve the soul of a nation. An homage to those who offer their lives, as martyrs, for her and for us, like Zapata, like Fariñas, and others.

If a Contest has the future of its jury or of its prize winners, that of Coexistence already lives in the greater fullness from its seed. Thanks to those who believed and trusted and sent fragments of their spirit and their letters.  Thanks to those who discerned the finest and offered their time in this exercise that is always threatened. A stellar jury, with Santiesteban as an angel of continuity with his “Libertad de la Luz,” of three years ago when we plowed indoors; Yoani, Pardo and Reinaldo like the innovation of these times of sowing in the open air, Maikel presiding over them in the love of weaving coexistence for the future vintage in the national home.

But first, now, there are signs of pain hovering over the Cuban house and, in its gestation, flutter the oasis of life, like this. We know, however, that the last word is Life. The course of civic formation of the Coexistence Gatherings today finish their third year, and in this small contest inaugural could be other seeds of the harvest to come.

It is near.

Thank you very much.