Speaking of Human Rights Talks Between the US and Cuban Governments… / Lilianne Ruíz

Cuban human rights activists at the Americas Summit in Panama. “Democracy is Respect”

Lilianne Ruiz, 13 October 2016 — Cubans are a captive people. The first evidence of this is that the island’s government will not talk to dissident voices about human rights. It does it with the US government.

In the island’s 43,190 square miles, two completely opposite projects or visions of a nation coexist badly. The two visions of a nation speak different languages. One, theirs, defend its domination; the other, ours, the right to change in a peaceful and democratic way this state of affairs that is so unjust.

For the Cuban government, whose political model of supply is socialism, the language is one of intolerance, the rights of conquest on the social body. The discourse of sovereignty invoked by the regime is incompatible with respect for human rights. continue reading

Government propaganda blames material poverty on the American economic embargo. But doesn’t recognize that it itself is a political aberration, with the state erecting itself as the administrator of our human needs as if it was about an endowment of slaves, an infantilized family, a mass of poor people and failed citizens that cannot freely build their own destiny, because their rights to do so is not recognized by the state.

We, as dissident civil society, have a different vision of what we want our country to be. Without even having to agree, because we are very diverse, we want to resolve the issues that affect us and affect our children, like education, health, culture, the role of the state, through the exercise of our civil and political rights. We want to elect cultured leaders who willingly accept their limitations. We want a free economy, without state interference, because the socialist economy is a condition without which the current government could not exercise its tyranny over society.

To better understand us we could say that our spirit is more akin to the American Declaration of Independence than the Marxism they tried to indoctrinate us with in school. Precisely because the Cuban state-party-government  behaves with respect to society like, in their time, a metropolis did with respect to colonies. In its logic there are conquerers and conquered, which is the logic of a relation of forces and not the logic of politics, and does not recognize our rights and in this sense we are a captive nation.

But we’re not really conquered, because there is no chance that we will give up our dreams, that have withstood every kind of storm. Sooner or later dreams find a way to express themselves and end up coming to fruition in the world

We can say that the Castro regime is alien to us, deaf to our affections, because it ignores the spiritual dimension of a liberalizing longing. So the reasons that move the political changes in totalitarian dictatorships are not only political in nature, but above all spiritual.

In the Civil Society Forum in the 7th Americas Summit in Panama, we endured the insults of the alleged civil society of artifice brought by the Castro regime leaders to defend their interests in interfering in the social body and trying to legitimate their domination presenting is as the highest form of humanism. I will never forget the opportunity that premiered at that Forum, of responding to those ridiculous attacks, with which they tried to disqualify us, although the never responded to our arguments, to our signs that said “Democracy is Respect.”

That artificial civil society that  launched itself against us, howling, in Panama, is made up of associations registered with government permission or of its own employees.

As long as the government is the administrator of needs, the distributor of benefits, and can treat Cubans like the subjects of its beneficence, given the impossibility of choosing another alternative, our ordeal will continue.

We can’t forget the ultimate purpose of the Socialism which is to create a new kind of human being that has forgotten forever everything that constitutes civilization, and to give a new universal interpretation, especially the significance of human rights.

From the Panama Forum I remember the speech of President Obama. He said, “Strong democracies are not afraid of their citizens.” This is the language of my captive island Not of the government, which engages in sophistry with its interlocutors, as it has tried to fool them for more than half a century.

The Virgin According to the Popes / Lilianne Ruíz

Lilianne Ruiz, Havana, 9 September 2016 — The processions of the Virgin of Charity, Patroness of Cuba, which took place yesterday, September 8, on the island, made me recall with nostalgia the subject of this article, Pope John Paul II.

Back in the ’60s of the last century, the then auxiliary bishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla was an activist for the right of the inhabitants of the new workers’ city of Nowa Huta, built on the outskirts of Krakow, to have a church consecrated to the Queen of Poland, Mary, Mother of God, under the patronage of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa.

Therefore, the future Pope of the Christian millennium celebrated a Midnight Mass in the open, more precisely in a frozen field, because of all the years the communist government of Poland refused to authorize the construction of a temple. In 1977 the new church was finally ready, having taken ten years to build. continue reading

After celebrating the consecration ceremony, Wojtyla, at that time the metropolitan archbishop, defender civitatis as tradition recognizes the Bishop of Krakow, gave a different sermon, as a “voice crying in the wilderness.” He said:

“This city is not a city of people who belong to no one. Of people to whom they can do what they want, who can be manipulated according to the laws or rules of production and consumption . . . We hope that in our country, with such a Christian and humanitarian past, these two orders — The Light and The Word of God, and respect for human rights — will join in a more effective way in the future.”

Years later, when he came to be pope, he would lead a spiritual and cultural crusade against totalitarianism; which was one determining factor in the 1989 liberalizations throughout Eastern Europe, establishing a new democratic order. While Reagan and Gorbachev played a historic role in the nonviolent revolution, John Paul II was the spiritual force that fatally wounded communism.

We Cubans currently ignore “where the shots come from,” of Pope Francis. The only thing that could excuse him for appearing so lukewarm when it is time to issue a condemnation of the way of life under socialism-communism, is the fact that he himself has never lived under similar conditions.

Life under such a political and economic model becomes miserable both in terms of goods as well as in aspirations and opportunities. Not, as the official propaganda tries to sell us, because of the US economic embargo or as a result of mistakes in economic plans, whose very existence violates fundamental freedoms, rather the scarcity of consumer goods and of opportunities for the individual to develop his or her own life project are the essential principle of the operation of the system.

Needless to say the socialist-communist state bases its stability on the elimination of any attempt at mobilization and political dissent; and not, as those who haven’t taken the trouble to reflect on it believe, on the ideological formula that tries to legitimate it in public opinion.

It is contradictory to listen to the Holy Father — from Krakow! — tell young Cubans “Don’t be afraid,” just when the ecclesiastical authorities on the island seem to limit themselves out of fear of political reprisals by the Cuban government, which have already been notable.

The antiquated government discourse of the right of sovereignty and nationalism as an ideological justification for the unlimited violations and damages that a discretionary and arbitrary power inflicts on individuals, on behalf of “social justice,” is a fraud consistent with the group in power determining what the needs are and distributing the satisfactions of these needs to entitled members of society, completely misrepresenting the needs of the human condition and its aspirations; in fact, it can only be countered by a strong speech in defense of human rights, by those who have the authority to make themselves heard.

Especially because the dignity of the human person promoting Catholicism only becomes meaningful when states show respect for those rights. The violation of which is what qualifies totalitarians as anti-humanists, the biblical antichrist, specifically because they deprive human beings of the consciousness of their individual moral responsibility, inalienable like their freedom.

In response to the question of what should be the current policy of the Vatican with respect to Cuba, the answer seems to refer more to the Ostpolitik of the Holy See than to the extraordinary legacy of John Paul II.

This Ostpolitik led in its day to Pope John XXIII, author of the encyclical Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth) delivered in reference to the nuclear crisis triggered by the installation of Soviet missiles in our country, and it reminds us that in calling the Second Vatican Council he was inspired by the maxim “save what can be saved” as a reaction to the policy of communist governments to try to stifle religious life to the point of extinction

It was the Secretary of State of the Holy See, Agostino Casaroli, who was charged with developing the Ostpolitik in relation to the countries of the Iron Curtain. But that policy would have defrauded the liberalizing yearnings of millions of human beings, victims of totalitarianism. John Paul II, unlike Casaroli, condemned such a political model under the human faculty of discernment between good and evil.

Most alarming in all this would be to conclude that the Polish Pope has been an exception to the rule, or that the current pontiff is more empathetic, due to his Argentine origin, with the “liberation theology” of an anti-liberal and leftist trend, and is trying to interpret the concept of the Kingdom of God on earth expressed in state interventionism as a disciplinary power applied to society, to “eradicate social injustice, the gap between rich and poor.”

Either way, the question arises to which we Cubans still have no answer: Can the Catholic Church be at peace with communism simply because of the fact that it is not presented as atheism?

Like conquering the world, whatever politics says, in the dreams of Cubans the Virgin of Charity is present. But not like the one of the processions, so cold and distant, so like a superstition; but the living one, the Mother of God, custodian of the name of every Cuban physically and spiritually violated on the stocks of the Political Police’s repression, those who serve the masters of the only party.

The Virgin, also called mambisa — female freedom fighter — protector of Cubans in the sea of the Florida Straits, companion of the deceased to that other dimension where there will be no weeping, to her we Cubans pray. And for the return of the democratizing wave, of the unforgettable Pope John Paul II.

Coco Farinas Lost Consciousness Again / Lilianne Ruíz

Lilianne Ruiz, 19 August 2106 — Guillermo “Coco” Fariñas had to be taken to the hospital again yesterday, at 4:40 in the afternoon The photo at the top of this post was taken several weeks ago but it shows how FANTU activists take him to the hospital.

As stipulated in the World Medical Association’s Declaration of Malta on Hunger Strikers, he was intravenously hydrated with saline solution. I want to clarify I am citing the Declaration of Malta because of one of the attacks of the regime’s trolls in the virtual forums that arise these days, it is a fact that Coco could not receive saline solution in a state hospital. continue reading

It is obvious that all the hospitals and polyclinics in Cuba are state owned, and that is one of the fatalities that many of us want to change, not only to improve the quality of medical services and make them accessible to everyone without discrimination, but also to put an end to this technology of Power that Foucault aptly defined as “Biopower,” and that allows the Cuban government to minutely control the population with disciplinary and regulatory effects.

In the Cuban context we must take into account the lack of a civic culture that affects even doctors and nurses in the healthcare system. According to the World Medical Association Declaration, “Physicians attending hunger strikers can experience a conflict between their loyalty to the employing authority (such as prison management) and their loyalty to patients. Physicians with dual loyalties are bound by the same ethical principles as other physicians, that is to say that their primary obligation is to the individual patient.”

We have to think of Cuba as a prison, a concentration camp, a decrepit experiment that all Cubans want to sweep away; but fear of reprisals makes them powerless to make political decisions; but it is not the case in homes, whose walls at least reflect the echoes of the protest. So when talking about state violence we have to include the coercion and the permanent propaganda in the media, which are a state monopoly. This is how totalitarianism works: it is made up of a network of anti-democratic institutions that make up the malignant machinery.

On another point, while writing this post I managed to talk to Coco in Tuesday, by phone. He could barely talk, it’s more exact to say that I managed let him hear me for a few minutes, to express all my support and solidarity.

However, I also told him that I will give thanks to God when he is back on his feet to continue fighting for freedom, for political freedom, like fundamental human rights, which we Cubans lack.

I compare this feat of Coco’s to swimming across the Atlantic, with the legitimate purpose of disarming a criminal government, before the incredulous eyes of the major stakeholders. Because, I believe that not only Cubans but the civilized world desire that Coco, or any opposition action in this non-violent struggle for freedom and democracy in Cuba, manages to disarm the so-called Cuban government, like a criminal who puts the social order in danger is disarmed in the dreamed-of Rule of Law.

As, in fact, Coco puts his life and danger and it seems a mission impossible, the only thing we, his friends, family and activists (along with every person of goodwill in the world who knows about this situation) can do is to offer our support both because his demands are our demands, the demands of the entire Cuban people, and because preserving his life means that his struggle can be much longer. But in any case, keeping in mind in every moment what is happening in Cuba. I believe that saving him from death and the suffering of a hunger and thirst strike is a moral imperative, to be with him, to support him, to make his struggle visible by every means possible.

So, it is as if we make up a rescue team and we must do it to accompany this whole journey of Coco’s, approaching death for bringing us the incredible gift of limiting a repressive government that could be disarmed and deactivated in all its power that day by day is only negative.

Last but not least: I want to denounce the fact that the political police again seem to be plotting a smear campaign against Fariñas’ hunger and thirst strike, diverting the phone calls that we activist make.

The Telecommunications Company (ETECSA) is also a state monopoly and is controlled by the military caste.

Last weekend, August 13 and 14, it seemed that all calls in question on many occasions were diverted to a State Security command center where at least two women, clearly officials, passing themselves off as activists, provided false information about the strike, trying to make people believe that it had been ended without prior declaration.

I fund it very strange, and as a precaution didn’t respond to any absurd comment. Especially strange to me was the farewell message of the supposed activist for its bureaucratic language, the sepulchral silence of the atmosphere on the other side of the line and the insistence that the friend we call “Bebo” — an activist and spokesperson for the strike, whose voice I know — could not come to the phone.

Now that is is confirmed by the experience of many people who also called that it was a police command post and not the house in Santa Clara, I remember the words of a dear friend who always tells me that in addition to all the political arguments against socialism, people with common sense reject if for the massive lack of style it projects.

In particular, what saved me from being taken in by the trick was my full confidence in Coco Fariñas as an activist. I remember the words of Gandhi, always opportune in situations like this: “Power first ignores you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

Guillermo "Coco" Farinas; Hunger and Thirst Strike Continues / Lilianne Ruíz

Lilianne Ruiz, 29 July 2016 — Guillermo ‘Coco’ Fariñas lost consciousness on Thursday, 28 July at noon, the eighth day of his hunger and thirst strike. He had to be taken to the main hospital of Santa Clara by the group of activists who are with him in the strike. He had spent the morning with much discomfort and his temperature had risen because of dehydration.

He arrived at the hospital unconscious and with the corners of his mouth and tongue parched, and covered of bloody scabs. He is suffering from “dizziness and all the hassles of severe dehydration,” according to Dr. Rodriguez Rangel, a FANTU (Anti-Totalitarian Front) activist and follower of Coco’s. It was the activists who took him, unconscious, to receive intravenous hydration. Coco had indicated, as he told me by phone, that the strike is “not about committing suicide,” but about resisting hunger and thirst until his demands are met. This is his 25th hunger strike. continue reading

Reflecting on the deteriorating health of Coco makes very sad reading. Jorge Luis “Bebo” Artiles Montiel has been designated by FANTU as spokesperson for the strike and sends out information via text messages. Most impressive to me is updated information on blood pressure, heart rate, the quantity of the urine in the day, being taken by his mother, Alicia, a licensed nurse.

I think about her, in the immense love and respect that she must feel for her son’s decision, dealing with the pain of seeing his physical deterioration.

The image of Christ and the Virgin at the foot of the cross comes to mind. Suffering for a cause that transcends his own person and doing it practically alone, flooded by a faith that has been lost in others from the bitter experience of knowing what in its time was named “the world” and that, thinking clearly, was nothing other, before or now, than “politics.”

And I say “alone” because although they have the support of many people inside and outside of Cuba, we mustn’t forget that they are in Santa Clara and that if they were in Havana they would have already received more visits from representatives from the diplomatic corps who, at the end of the day, are the only ones who can help us right now with their solidarity. And there would also be more of a presence of the foreign media to shape public opinion about the strike; and a little more access to the internet so that the activists can keep the issue visible on the social networks.

Being in the provinces, Coco’s strike now needs all our strength, of memory, of our good actions, a visit, a call, effective management by those who can apply political pressure, a campaign on the social networks, an escalation of visibility which demonstrates the commitment to the defense of freedom and democracy in Cuba, which is above all a moral imperative.

Not only has Coco been hurt by a beating at the hands of State Security agents while handcuffed, but also by that which was aptly defined by Pope John Paul II, as the experience of “humiliation at the hands of evil.” So the hunger strike is Coco’s moral response, committed to nonviolence.

Guillermo ‘Coco’ Fariñas (left), Lilianne Ruiz (center)

Coco told me by phone that he appreciated his brothers from FANTU and other organizations for having helped him when he lost consciousness. And the doctors and nurses of the hospital of Santa Clara because they did not let themselves be coerced.

The members of the repressive forces were also guarding the hospital, as the activists with whom I spoke on the phone reported to me. The presence of of the political police in our lives as Cubans is one of the things we want to erase and part of that chapter of violence which Coco’s hunger strike is protesting against.

To give just one example, in Havana for the last 62 Sundays the Ladies in White have confronted a brutal repression. They are beaten, thrown to the pavement, and arrested to prevent them from marching for the freedom of the political prisoners.

To conceal the fact of the violence of its institutions the government uses violence.

It reminds me of the little I’ve read of John Stuart Mill, because it seems so desirable to build coexistence. Limiting the powers of government is what they understood, and understand, as freedom. First “obtaining recognition of certain immunities, called political liberties or rights.” Because it is essential to the rule of law to prevent all sorts of wrongdoers from coming to power.

A hunger and thirst strike creates an unspeakable discomfort in the body. Although his body has been hydrated intravenously, it continues to suffer and deteriorate through the effects of starvation and the oral withdrawal of water. It is enough to feel thirsty or hungry during a few hours in the day to imagine the severity of a strike like this.

Coco still suffers the physical effects of previous strikes, the longest lasting 18 months. He suffers from a polyneuropathy in peripheral limbs, muscular hypotonia, and gastric disorders. Because of his sacrifice, 52 of the 75 prisoners of the Black Spring were released, but the circumstances surrounding that sacrifice was one of large-scale international solidarity. Now we need that solidarity again.

We all want Coco to be well, with the same force with which we wish to the violent repression inherent in the political and economic system of Cuba to cease, along with the punishment for dissent, for seeking justice, for freedom from a government hatefully ensconced in every corner of this island where the light is trapped, and contributing to the destruction: civic, political, economic, social and cultural.

“The opposition has not matured,” Laments Martha Beatriz Roque / 14ymedio, Lilianne Ruiz

Martha Beatriz Roque. (14ymedio)
Martha Beatriz Roque. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Lilianne Ruiz, Havana, 28 April 2016 —  Martha Beatriz Roque has returned from Miami after receiving a permit from the Cuban government in late February, which authorized her to leave the country one time. The activist was one of the seven former prisoners of the Black Spring of 2003 who benefited from this permit. She returns with a certain pessimism and a critical impression of the state of the Cuban opposition.

Lilianne Ruiz. You returned from abroad after permission from the Cuban government, which allowed you to make only one trip. What impressions did you bring back from your stay outside the country?

Martha Beatriz Roque. I come back with a tremendous pain in my heart about what I have seen there. In Miami there is the historic exile, who love their country, their fatherland, who talk about democracy, who think about Cuba constantly and who have a great nostalgia for the island, but this historic exile, unfortunately, is getting old and some of its members have died. continue reading

However, many people who are coming to Miami through different countries, including now through Costa Rica, Ecuador and Panama, are turning their backs on Cuba, they even want to forget that they are Cubans. These are people who are a part of a social fabric here that is broken, who have no ethics, no formal education and they are contaminating Miami.

LR. What do you think has been the outcome of Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba?

MBR. Obama has his agenda and within it is defending the interests of American citizens, as is natural, because that is his country. He has made it clear that the problems of Cuba have to be solved by Cubans and that is important. The people had a great lesson with Obama’s visit: for the people it has meant hope, which the Communist Party Congress subsequently tried to annihilate.

LR. And the opposition?

MBR. In Cuba there are opponents, but an opposition, as such, does not exist. An opposition exists in Venezuela, because it has been capable of uniting despite its disagreements. We are not capable of something like that yet. Here the unity lasts seconds.

LR. Did the 7th Congress of the Communist Party frustrate you, or were you were expecting something like what happened?

MBR. The Party Congress was going to be postponed to another date but it was held to try to counter what Obama said to the Cuban people, and because of this they didn’t have any finished [guiding] document. Some said, after the Congress was over, “We were right, Obama has achieved nothing.” Others say that the Congress was a way of demonstrating the failure of what Obama is doing, but I would not say that. Much less do I think it is a failure, because there are things that have been accelerated with Obama’s visit.

LR. Like what?

MBR. In the specific case of the eleven members of us from the [Black Spring] group of 75 who remain in Cuba, we were not allowed to leave the country and, at least in this moment, they allowed us one trip abroad. There have been solutions to some problems that you couldn’t say are changes, without the reestablishment of rights. This has to be seen as something satisfactory, not as something negative. In the not so distant future other solutions will have to come, because the economic, social and political situation of the country is unbearable.

LR. Will it be the self-employed who change Cuba?

MBR. The Cuban regime will not allow any self-employed to export, because that, they will say, is reserved for the businesses of the Ministry of Foreign Trade. The United States government is trying to have direct relationships with the self-employed, but that is not going to be allowed. Right now, when some self-employed turn their faces just slightly to the north, they’re going to cut off those businesses they’re going to stop everything.

LR. Can access to the internet help make the changes occur?

MBR. The regime does not allow it because they know that the internet is a source of knowledge, of the transmission of news and possibilities.

LR. What is the Cuban opposition lacking to be able to call forth the people?

MBR. First of all, it lacks leadership. Unfortunately, here everyone wants to be a leader, no one wants to be in the line, everyone wants to be at the head of it. It also lacks the exile,, which is capable of manufacturing a leader and putting forward a project with resources, but this does not solve anything.

LR. Do you see any chance for the opposition to influence the constitutional referendum announced by the government?

MBR. The opposition has not matured, it is still the same, generating documents, projecting itself abroad, meeting abroad, telling people what they have to do. But if the opposition doesn’t take advantage of this moment to work jointly with the people, it’s simple, nothing is going to happen. If they don’t work with the people, if they don’t raise awareness among the people, what does it matter that they go to meet the Pope in Rome, it’s all the same, it is simply not going to solve anything.

The Cuban Spice Route / 14ymedio, Lilianne Ruiz

An employee selects and packages spices at Purita Industries. (14ymedio)
An employee selects and packages spices at Purita Industries. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Lilianne Ruiz, San Miguel del Padron, 24 April 2016 — The spice route of Purita Industries begins with the pruning camp a short distance from the production workshop. It continues in the room where the machine is, a heated dehydrator designed by a mechanical engineer that processes 200 pounds of plants in 24 hours.

Located in San Miguel del Padron, to reach Purita’s farm you have to cross the Güines highway and continue down Dolores Street “until you can sense the odor of the seasonings,” as a nearby neighbor directs.

The aroma of the spices hits your nose before you enter the little factory. They produce basil, celery, rosemary, chives, tarragon and garlic, all “one hundred percent natural,” according to the producers. They also produce dried peppers, peanuts and shredded coconut. continue reading

Purita Industries is made up of a group of 11 professionals associated in the form on a non-agricultural cooperative founded two years ago, with a license to produce spices, condiments and dried fruits. “We are a small group of people who, with great effort, are trying to produce a highest quality product,” says the computer engineer Liuder Raspall, who became president of the entity.

The technology they work with is almost handmade. The dehydrator is designed by a mechanical engineer but constructed “together” by the workers, says Alfredo Gonzalez, farmer and partner. The equipment is made from galvanized metal and steel with nickel, with thermal insulation. Although currently it works off liquid glass and electricity, it was designed to also work with biogas and solar panels.

Certified by the National National Institute of Hygiene and Epidemiology, Purita products retain up to 60% of their organoleptic properties, that is those those that stimulate the senses to identify foods. A sample of them is taken to the laboratories of the institute to be periodically evaluated.

“The key to getting a product that, after being dehydrated, continues to have the aroma, the taste and the color is to maintain a temperature between 60 and 70 degrees and a continuous flow of air in one direction,” Raspall explains as he shows a package of light green chives, and describes that “the air supplied in a mandatory sense passes over the plants, removes moisture and does not return to touch them, because they would be rehydrated.”

At least ten fresh plants are required to get 2.2 pounds of dehydrated. Maintaining a stable volume of production is a challenge for Gonzalez, who has convinced farmers like himself in the surrounding area to plant herbs for culinary use. “We are starting to create direct partnerships with farmers who want to grow healthily, to operate the field in a certain way,” he says.

Farmers who have engaged in this new experience have discovered how profitable is to cultivate these herbs, because some, such as tarragon, thrive so easily that they hardly need watering if there are normal rains. “Science is pruning the branches in the right place,” Gonzalez said, pointing to a level in the basil. Plants are pruned every 21 days and some can last up to 10 years. Another incentive to plant is that the rational use of fields means that the crops never spoil.

The garden with herbs being grown for Purita Industries. (14ymedio)
The garden with herbs being grown for Purita Industries. (14ymedio)

The route of the spices, seasonings and nuts Purita ends in the stalls, which until very recently were only allowed in agricultural fairs held sporadically. Coming soon will also be a few sales points in the Ideal markets in the capital, a network of state stores that sells in Cuban pesos. A disadvantage in those places is that the lack the design of the space and striking publicity graphics to attract clients; for now people only look there for the cheapest deals.

“One of the things that we have in a difficult financial state is to make the price affordable to consumers,” says Raspall, who along with the rest of the associates is expecting to gain sales volumes. The Purita products sell for 15 Cuban pesos (about 60¢ US) for 20 grams. In this way they compete with El Portro, a state company that sells imported spices that cost up to 2.80 CUC (about $2.80 US) for 20 grams.

El Portro seasonings have not been available to suit all budgets, so the challenge for Purita is to show its existing customers their quality and the begin to promote their spices to the rest of the population, used to using cheaper artificial seasonings, along with garlic, onion and chili, which shouldn’t be missing in the ailing Cuban cuisine.

Purita products are also sold on several digital pages that let people buy them pre-paid from abroad for delivery to friends or family in Cuba.

In the workshop, very close to the current dehydrator, which has a 100 pound capacity and works two shifts a day, new opportunities are already being conceived. The same formula will be improved in some detail and, above all, the equipment is much larger and can produce a ton of seasonings daily.

The technology could help strengthen the spice industry, for example by introducing freeze-drying techniques. However, importing equipment is difficult. “This cost us very little money compared to a Rational that would cost about $75,000 (US), and the big difference would be that that one would have temperature sensors and automatic regulators,” he concludes.

The Rebels Of Imported Clothes / 14ymedio, Lilianne Ruiz

Clothing store in Havana. (EFE)
Clothing store in Havana. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Lilianne Ruiz, Havana, 8 March 2016 – “Chinese or brand name?” Sandy asked a customer who had come to order some shoes. They talk inside the house with the door closed, in the same room where three years ago the saleswoman had one of the most frequented boutiques in Central Havana. Today she is still in business, but no longer has a sign in the window or models on view for those passing by on the sidewalk.

Despite all the customs restrictions, the sellers of imported clothing have managed to maintain a stable and varied offering. On 31 December 2013, a ban on selling clothes or other products made abroad went into effect, plunging the market into illegality from which it continues to operate, moving millions of pesos a year. continue reading

Most of the clothes Sandy sells are “Chinese,” a popular moniker for non-brand-name products. In the corner of her bedroom, several suitcases are full of leggings, shirts, jeans and dresses of various colors. “I have every size, even extra large,” she says. Unlike the state stores, which don’t accept payment in installments, the vendor allows her clients to pay things off “little by little.”

Sandy explained to 14ymedio that among her merchandise the best denim comes from Panama, where she can buy jeans for 18 dollars and sell them here for 25 CUC. The young woman took advantage of a seamstress’s license to sell imported clothes, but had to go underground when the government decreed that that license only allowed the sale of handmade clothing. “Just imagine, I don’t know how to sew a single stitch. My thing is this: buy to sell later,” she said.

Along with the restrictions on this kind of self-employment, customs regulations were also tightened, by Resolution 206. In 2014, limits were established to “determine the commercial character of imports by natural persons,” by any route. Now it is only possible to bring in 24 shirts, 20 blouses, 10 pants or 10 dresses.

However, the flow of goods does not seem to have suffered a drastic fall off in the informal market. “We have to be more careful, but we keep on selling,” comments Karina, a “mule” who frequently makes the trip from Panama, Ecuador and Mexico to buy from large wholesale stores, thanks to an Italian passport that she obtained after living in that country for some time.

To get through customs, Karina says she relies on her luck and on having a network of contacts that allow “suitcases and briefcases through, leaving behind a few goodies,” for the airport staff. She doesn’t consider it a crime to corrupt a few officials, because, she justifies, “It’s clothes! Not arms or drugs!”

The General Customs of the Republic has not released figures of seizures of “miscellaneous” items since Resolution 206 went into effect more than two years ago. An official of the Customs Disclosure Department told this newspaper, by phone, that “this data isn’t published,” and refused to confirm the final destination of the seized merchandise.

Along with the “Chinese” shops, in the underground clothing business there are boutiques, with choices for higher quality and higher prices. In Cuba the preferred brands are the most economical, “we’re not talking Louis Vuitton,” affirms Solveig, passionate about the latest fashion trends.

The young woman, 22, has numerous contacts, and so is able to dress herself with a certain “touch of exclusivity.” She explains that brands like Mago, Zara, Berskha and H&M are marketed in parallel in a country where there are no franchises or large chains. “Desigual brand clothes cost double, and the same with Pull&Bear,” although “the clothes are originally acquired in liquidation.”

“People still prefer to buy clothes from private sellers,” affirms Solveig, which is consistent with many people’s opinions of the clothes in state stores. “They are years behind the times and the prices are outrageous,” she complains. She dreams of being able to enter a “closed circle” selling “good clothes,” where a trader has a fixed clientele and knows their preferences. “If you are not in that group you have to knock on the door and they don’t sell to you or alter things,” she laments.

Marcia is operating at this level and buys most of her clothes through Amazon, thanks to a relative abroad. Her relative buys the clothes on line and sends them by way of “mules” or package services to the island. Her clientele comes to a night show, ready to pay much higher prices thanks to the long trip.

The experienced seller downloads pages from Amazon and prepares a digital collection that she shows her customers on a tablet. The buyers choose and when she connects “on wifi on La Rampa or at the home of a friend” she makes the selection and her sister buys them. “I fill a virtual cart and tell my sister so she can pay,” she explains.

“First of all, the people who do this have to have contacts over there,” says Marcia, pointing north. “This is a business of attention to detail.” She is right when she says that, because they have to know the costs for buying things, the delivery services and the costs of sending the packages to Cuba. A complicated arithmetic formula whose profits are shared among all concerned.

The system for shipping parcels is also undertaken by agencies such as Bacuba, Fromline and Caribexpress, which have contracts with the state-owned Cubapack. If the packages exceed three pounds, there is a tax of 20 CUC for each kilogram. A sender abroad can only send two to four packages each time, but there are no limits for the recipient. Packages can take between ten days and a month to get to the island.

Marcia is waiting for a “significant” package. A famous singer has commissioned a dress for a special night. “I’m counting the days until it comes, because if all goes well I’ll earn an excellent client,” she says, convinced that this will allow her to have her own “circle of famous people” who will buy “name brand clothes to order.”

Dressmaker, A Dying Profession / 14ymedio, Lilianne Ruiz

A seamstress offers her services to sew and mend in Havana. (14ymedio)
A seamstress offers her services to sew and mend in Havana. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Lilianne Ruiz, Havana, 16 February 2016 – Spending her days among needles, threads and fabrics, the dressmaker Yansa Muniz defends handmade garments against the widespread trend to prefer brand name clothes. Her tenacity has led to the creation of Impar (Unparalleled), a workshop in Havana’s Nuevo Vedado neighborhood, where she dedicates herself to made-to-measure outfits.

In a society where tailors and seamstresses are an endangered species, this young woman learned the craft from her grandmother, an expert in hats for the theater. However, it was only a few years ago that she realized she wanted to devote the rest of her life to those skills learned in childhood.

Yansa acquired her own self-employment license in 2013, when the authorities outlawed the sale of imported clothing. “I sewed a tea towel and they gave me permission,” she says, recalling the sewing exam she had to take before the inspectors of the Ministry of Labor to demonstrate her skills.

Now, much later, her biggest concern is finding the raw materials to support her business, amid the shortages and high prices in the Cuban market. continue reading

Most of her customers are women between 40 and 50, who find it hard to find clothes in their size at the state stores. Also common are those who come to ask her to repair or alter some garment; she rarely provides services to teenagers because they “prefer brand name clothing,” says the dressmaker.

In August, the greatest demand is for repairing and altering school uniforms, often “we have to take them apart and start from the beginning,” says Yansa. She works with two machines, an electric Singer and a German Gritzner, which lets her do finishes such as scallops similar to industrial machines, and she feels herself lucky compared to others who use unpowered machines “and have to work the pedal the whole time.”

Impar, a dressmakers in Havana’s Nuevo Vedado neighborhood managed by Yansa Muñiz. (14ymedio)
Impar, a dressmakers in Havana’s Nuevo Vedado neighborhood managed by Yansa Muñiz. (14ymedio)

The informal (underground) market in fabric is not as well developed as that for already-made clothing. Bringing resources from another country is not a solution because right now the government only allows the import of ten yards of fabric. “If they have one yard more we seize the entire shipment,” confirms an official with the Public Services Department of the General Customs of the Republic.

Some seamstresses are worshipped for their skill. This is true in the case of Elvira Menendez, 78, who boasts that she can still “sew up a storm” and has the vision to “thread a needle on the first try.” She lives in Regla and has made clothes ranging from layettes to wedding dresses for many generations of the residents in her area.

The most successful outfit from this seamstress was a copy of the jacket Michael Jackson wore in one of his videos. “People came from all over Havana to buy it,” she recalls. She was also an expert in plagiarizing jeans, at a time when they were only available to those with relatives abroad.

Now, when she talks about fashion, her eyes light up and she remembers the works of dressmaking shops such as La Época, Fin de Siglo, Belinda Modas and Angelita’s Novias. “The seamstresses there followed the trends from Paris and New York,” she said. After the crisis of the ‘60s “people were looking in their closets for old fabrics that could be reused to sew something new.”

Her worst nightmare came true in the decades of the ‘70s and ‘80s, “when you saw the same patterned fabric in a man’s shirt or in a woman’s dress,” she jokes. Her market niche now is clothes for children who are taking ballet or Spanish dancing classes, the clothing for Santeria rituals, and uniforms for sports teams and for employees of private restaurants.

Elvira recognizes that the importing of clothes from Panama and Ecuador is “putting an end to this profession.” She can’t compete with the “catalogs of brand name clothing from there,” she comments, referring to the underground market in clothes. While she talks, she sews a robe for a little girl, with ruffles and covered buttons. “This is something you see less and less of,” says the veteran seamstress.

Cuban Musicians Are Freeing Themselves / 14ymedio, Lilianne Ruiz

JouMP’s alternative recording studio, “Espacio Latino Records.” (14y medio)
JouMP’s alternative recording studio, “Espacio Latino Records.” (14y medio)

14ymedio, Lilianne Ruiz, Havana, 12 January 2016 – In an apartment located in a dingy, rundown concrete building of Havana’s Plaza district, dozens of musicians have made the dream of recording their songs come true. Here we find one of those “home studios” that are becoming essential for the Cuban music scene, and especially for the online market.

A couple of years ago, nineteen year-old Claudia Pérez chose a new more “intriguing” name befitting a “grand diva,” Nina. However, her vocal and performance talents will not get her very far without the backing of a musical expert and an independent producer.

JouMP, a music producer and editor, owns the studio where Nina recorded her first singles. It is composed of a single room with wood paneling, pompously advertising itself as “Espacio Latino Records.” JouMP spends hours in his studio, insulated from street noise, mixing musical effects and composing songs. continue reading

“The only thing I need to do is find the right musical thread, and then the right instrument that defines the piece’s esthetic,” remarked JouMP. He added, “Right from the start I know how to identify songs that are sure to be hits.” This is why he is so respected, and why so many entrust him with recording their albums, songs, or creating background melodies for them.

JouMP has been involved in the world of independent creativity for more than a decade, and considers himself “a sound artisan.” His most prized possession is an external hard drive storing more than four thousand musical pieces encompassing several genres, all created by him.

Stored together with his compositions are sound editing programs such as Fruity Loops, Wavelab, and Logic Pro, as well as dozens of recording tools. The majority of these programs are pirated versions, purchased on the black market.

The apple of JouMP’s eyes is his digital console, which along with his monitors, his computer with a powerful soundcard, and his microphones, gives the studio a professional look. This equipment was also acquired outside of official State channels, purchased second-hand, or from those travelling abroad who are asked to bring it back to Cuba with them.

The lack of copyright laws and official authorization give a clandestine feeling to these ventures. Still, this does not discourage those who jump at the opportunity of turning their bedrooms into “sound factories.” For the most part, the reggaetón played in shared taxis and on teenagers’ earphones are recorded in these types of alternative studios. The most common way of promoting this music on the Cuban market is by way of the “weekly packet.”

JouMP bragged about creating an arrangement for rapper Wilder 01 by mixing cha-cha with an electric guitar, thus giving it a “crunch” sound. He called the piece “Estar contigo” (“Being With You”), and offered it to EGREM. This State-run music label hailed the song’s originality, and recognized that it did contain “some traces of Cuban music.” Nonetheless, it was “too foreign.”

Those times when membership in a (government-run/official/State) organization was a prerequisite for recording an album are now in the past. “Privately owned studios give you more freedom,” commented Dj Xon, an eighteen year-old who performs at parties, and who also dreams of compiling all his work and uploading it to iTunes.

Until now, the only option available for the majority of Cuban musicians who wanted to post their music online was Bis Musica, a label owned by the State-owned corporation Artex. Bis Musica is in charge of uploading music to platforms such as Spotify, iTunes, and Amazon. It often also acts as an agent, retaining up to fifty percent of a song’s royalties.

Some artists manage to upload their songs onto the Internet thanks to a friend or relative abroad who also helps them secure their royalties. Despite the difficulty of accessing the Internet or collecting royalties in Cuba, iTunes offers a wide variety of music produced by Cubans living on the island.

In their short years, JouMP, Nina, and Wilder 01 have witnessed a giant technological and social leap forward. They have seen the industry go from old vinyl records, whose production was under total State control, to the new wave of independent studios where songs are not even burned to CD’s anymore, but instead are being produced for online streaming.

“They’ll be able to hear me anywhere in the world, because I’ll be up there,” commented Nina. While singing in that narrow studio with wood paneling, she daydreams about “the cloud,” and the enormous potential her voice could have online.

Translated by José Badué

Social Status is in the Cake / 14ymedio, Lilianne Ruiz

A bride looks at the multi-tiered cake designed for her wedding. (DC)
A bride looks at the multi-tiered cake designed for her wedding. (DC)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Lilianne Ruiz, Havana, 23 January 2016 — A cake in the shape of a camera, figures of the newlyweds modeled in sugar, or the Real Madrid team emblem are some of the offerings of a private company that arranges weddings and birthday parties. The company enjoys a growing number of customers in a society where the quality and height of the cakes has become a status symbol.

How many tiers will the cake have? The answer to this question demonstrates one’s economic solvency and widens the gap between those who can afford a pile of sugar and meringue, with fountains, LED lights and a layer of chocolate, and those who will have to make do with a sponge cake made at home with much ingenuity and few ingredients. continue reading

“For my son’s birthday I ordered a cake in the shape of a pool table,” said one 50-year-old lady who has become a faithful customer of Kirocake, a pastry making business that prides itself on making “art for the palate.” Located in the Miramar neighborhood, the small business also boasts of creating almost anything its customers ask for.

The orders are as varied as you can imagine. From the image of the little monkey Cheburaska for someone who grew up watching Russian cartoons, to the creation of Disney’s Tinker Bell for a little girl. As there are no limits on dreams, the small self-employed producers pick up the pace to anticipate the future. Some of them are already producing designs from the Star Wars or Minions movies.

At Kirocake the specialty is fondant, a sugar-based paste, and they offer their customers a tasting to choose the flavors for the filling and decorations. The confectioners also work in whipped cream, but it is considered unstable for cakes, which can measure up to four-and-a-half feet high.

“The fondant has a creamy milk texture and tastes like honey,” a Kirocake employee explained to 14ymedio while putting the final touches on a wedding cake. A classic cake for this kind of occasion, with sugar roses, for 80 guests and about 30 inches high, costs no less than 200 Cuban convertible pesos, the equivalent of eight months salary for a professional.

The producers of these sugary wonders generally have a food handler license and are subject to frequent inspections. “We have to have the receipts for all the ingredients,” says Richard, who runs a small company that arranges parties in San Miguel del Padron. But the man does not hide the fact that, “If we were guided by the law, we couldn’t even make a pancake.”

In the informal market there is a wide range of raw materials for pastry and baking products, such as eggs, flour and meringue dyes. Most of these products come from the diversion of resources from state agencies. “If we didn’t buy under the table, we would have to sell our cakes at prices where nobody would but them,” says Ricardo.

In March of last year, 19 employees from the Havana Base Business Unit for Collection and Distribution of Eggs and from the Provincial Trade Company were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 8 to 20 years for the theft of eight million eggs, with an economic impact of almost 9 million Cuban pesos, according to a report in the official press.

A few months later, in an inspection of 60 boxcars carried out by the Provincial Railway Company, it was determined that between September and October alone, over 100,000 pounds of flour disappeared while being transported by rail. A portion of this stolen merchandise is likely to end up in the cake of their dreams of countless brides and quinceañeras (girls celebrating their 15th birthdays).

Other ingredients, says Ricardo, such as “the most sophisticated, are imported by mules or people who travel abroad.” Examples of these delicacies include, “gold and silver edible sugar pearls, vanilla sugar, truffles and many of the accessories we use such as fountains, lights, Ferris wheels and carousels.”

Self-employed event organizers such as Megafiestas, D’eventos and Sentir Eventos, offer all-inclusive packages from the rental of the hall to the artistic invitations, including the décor, wedding clothes, stylists, photographers and classic car rentals, mostly convertibles. A wedding arranged in this way cannot be done for less than 3,000 CUC (about $3,300 US).

Not only do they specialize in wedding parties, quinceañeras, christenings and anniversaries, they can also arrange wedding showers and bachelor/bachelorette parties. Their business cards speak of “the discretion of their specialists” able to focus on “each customer’s uniqueness.”

For those nostalgic for Russian cartoons, Kirocake designed this cake with the image of the little monkey known as Cheburashka.(Kirocake)

Having a party with a huge cake would be nothing without a hall decorated by professionals with flower arrangements or balloons, tablecloths, covers and bows on the chairs, fountains of champagne and chocolate. The wedding buffet has also emerged from the narrow framework of the cardboard box with cold salad, croquettes and party sandwiches.

“That went out of style,” says Mara, helping a friend prepare her wedding. The current buffet “contains shrimp, canapés, cheeses and smoked salmon.” The cake commissioned by Mara for her friend will have 14 layers on six tiers, constantly running colored fountains, mirrors, LED lights, and will cost 150 CUC. The new emerging class makes no excuses for falling into kitsch; what most matters is differentiating yourself from others.

Gabriela, 39, started saving money when her daughter was 10 years old: “I’m putting a convertible peso into the piggy bank whenever I can.” She, like most Cubans, lives day-to-day, but does not give up the dream of an elaborate celebration for her daughter’s 15th birthday. “I want to have an album of photos, and cake she can snack on with her friends,” says the woman. Her fear is that when the time comes she will have to make do with what the state offers.

When young women turn 15 they get a voucher for as subsidized cake at a conventional bakery. With this cake voucher, issued by the Basic Unit of the Food Industry, a person can get a birthday cake for 10 Cuban pesos (about 40¢ US), a quinceañera cake for 30 Cuban pesos, or a wedding cake for 40 Cuban pesos. This is vanilla sponge cake with a guava filling and merengue icing, without elaborate ornamentation and with a standard design.

Gabriela’s daughter has bigger ideas. “I want a cake with Beyoncé’s face” she warned her family. “And I want her music playing everywhere, Mommy.”

Cuban Middle Class Takes Over ‘Proletarian’ Neighborhoods / 14ymedio, Lilianne Ruiz

The 12-story buildings are the most common, followed by those with 18 or 14 floors, built with the technique of prefabricated pieces. (14ymedio)
The 12-story buildings are the most common, followed by those with 18 or 14 floors, built with the technique of prefabricated pieces. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Lilianne Ruiz, Havana, 22 December 2015 — “These buildings are earthquake resistant,” says the owner of an apartment for sale in a Havana neighborhood. The potential buyer listens incredulous, looking out from the balcony at other concrete blocks in the surrounding area. What was once a working-class neighborhood, where work and political “merits” were needed to get an apartment, is now becoming the scene of an emerging middle class.

Across the whole country, especially in the provincial capitals, tall buildings were erected in the decades of the seventies and eighties. Twelve stories is most common, followed by those with 18 or 14 floors, constructed from prefabricated pieces. The highest, at 26 floors, were built using the then novel approach of sliding formwork technology.

The so-called Microbrigade* Buildings, have become synonymous with the socialist architecture of Eastern Europe, transplanted to the tropics. It came to be predicted that these giants would replace Cuba’s traditional architecture, and shelter the New Man. Today, despite their exterior ugliness, many of the apartments are bought by an emerging middle class that aspires to see Cuba “from above.” continue reading

In 1979 Orestes Figueroa won a three-bedroom apartment he now wants to sell for 25,000 convertible pesos. “I won it because I had spent almost seven years working as a bricklayer and they awarded it to me based on my merits,” he says wistfully. Located near the Rancho Boyeros Avenue, the colossus in which the home is located is still maintained with a certain dignity, unlike others plagued by hydraulic problems, broken elevators and deteriorating construction.

Now retired, Figueroa has never forgotten the moment when they read out at an assembly the number of volunteer hours he had amassed to obtain that apartment. It was an afternoon of questioning glances and whispers among those vying for a roof. His Communist Party membership and participation in political activities helped him to rise on the list of those deserving an apartment. That night he couldn’t sleep he was so happy.

Those were the days when “loyalty to the process” functioned as an invisible currency with which one could acquire things ranging from appliances, to the right to a vacation in tourist facilities, to the allocation of housing. However, the happy owner had to pay 6,000 Cuban pesos for their new home: 10% of a 250 peso monthly salary for 20 years.

With the legalization of the dollar in the early nineties and the subsequent appearance of the convertible peso, a new form of “natural selection” emerged, where money regained its value for transactions. However, it was not until late 2011, when the buying and selling of homes was legalized, that thousands of apartments in proletarian neighborhoods hit the market.

The microbrigade members of yesteryear, like Figueroa, now weigh the possibility of exchanging the homes they won for the hard cash that would allow them to buy a smaller place and have something level over to supplement their very low pensions. They dream of finding some nouveau riche willing to pay cash for what was once acquired through labor and ideological efforts.

Lizbeth is part of the growing sector of Cubans with access to hard currency. She has always dreamed of living on a high floor, but does not have enough resources to buy a property in one of the buildings built “under capitalism” – i.e. before the Revolution. In a country that grows more horizontally than towards the clouds, the number of apartments in the heights is limited and there is not much to choose from. In 2014, over the whole island, just 25,037 homes were built, of which more than half were built by their residents’ own efforts.

“I didn’t want the Alamar neighborhood, east of Havana, because I don’t like the haphazard crowding of the buildings,” says Lizbeth. With family abroad and a thriving interior design business, the professional inquired in Vedado, looking at the buildings constructed by the microbrigades from the Ministry of the interior, the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television and other state entities. However, prices are higher in areas like Vedado, closest to the Malecon.

Her next choice was the Nuevo Vedado neighborhood, where most of these piles that were built in Havana are concentrated. Properties built by sponsors as diverse as the Ministries of Transport, the Armed Forces, the Interior, Labor and Social Security, or Basic Industry, among others.

“This is neighborhood of bosses and Party fanatics,” says the buyer scornfully, looking at prices that start at 25,000 convertible pesos and go up from there. She finally found something in Alta Habana that fit her budget, between the Electric Company building and the National Poultry Company. Despite the prejudices against housing constructed by the inexperienced microbrigades, the young woman believes that, given its recent construction, it is unlikely to collapse or be declared uninhabitable.

New plumbing installations. (14ymedio)
New plumbing installations. (14ymedio)

Indoors, many residents have invested in redoing the bathrooms and kitchens of what were once standard apartments, but most of the facades show the inexorable passage of time, with chipped balconies, unsealed aluminum windows and unpainted common areas with no lighting. In almost all, the water supply lasts only a few hours a day, so the terraces and small courtyards are filled with backup storage tanks.

These concrete giants, once the symbol of revolutionary architecture, have not been maintained for more than three decades. Water pipes have given way in several places and countless apartments are marked by ceiling leaks, while neighbors complain that their new concrete colossus has become “a great big tenement.”

The initial inhabitants, like Figueroa, leave slowly. While Lizbeth makes plans for what color she will paint the walls of her new home, the LED lights she will place in the entryway, and the tub she will install where now there is only an inconvenient shower. The earthquake safety measures built into these tall buildings did not foresee the earthquakes of the economy.

* Translator’s note:
For more information about microbrigades see page 26 of this report by Cuban architect Mario Coyula.

The Path To Learning, Paved With Politics / 14ymedio, Lilianne Ruiz

“We give her a lot of fantasies, fairy tales, and craft books to read, to offset what she receives in school,” says her grandmother. (Lilianne Ruiz)
“We give her a lot of fantasies, fairy tales, and craft books to read, to offset what she receives in school,” says her grandmother. (Lilianne Ruiz)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Lilianne Ruiz, Havana, 15 December 2015 — “On the path of Martí, with the guidance of Fidel, for the homeland and socialism: Moncadistas* always ready.” With that motto the school day begins every morning for Claudia Martinez, a fifth grader in Havana’s Plaza district whose parents try to soften at home the ideological excesses of Cuban public education.

The girl learned to read with stories of combat, biographies Sierra Maestra fighters and anti-imperialist slogans. Of the 222 pages in the current edition of the first grade reading book, 21 pages are dedicated to teaching the official version of the Cuban Revolution and its political figures. Guns and olive green uniforms abound in its illustration, although few would expect such a profusion of military themes in a children’s reader. continue reading

When she reached the fourth grade, Claudia was already skilled in repeating slogans and phrases taken from Fidel Castro’s speeches. The book that perfected her reading in this grade started with some words spoken by the former Cuban president and another similar fragment was waiting on page 215 of the same volume. Overall, 10% of the reading book is dedicated to recounting the exploits of the figures in power or praising the system. Here, “The path to learning is paved with politics,” said Claudia’s mother, wryly.

Education in Cuba is “a function of the state and is free,” according to the Constitution, which also, in Article 39, calls for “promoting the patriotic and communist education of the new generations and preparing children, youth and adults for social life.”

“Why does education promote values associated with communism?” whispers Claudia’s father, who dreams of being able to choose the education his daughter receives, but sees this as “impossible for now.”

Now 34, and also schooled under the same education system, this Little Pioneer’s mother recognizes that “it’s true that the teachers have a program they must follow.” However, the parents have never been able to meet with the methodologists “to influence these programs,” she complains. She is aware that in the current circumstances, the parents “have no involvement in the design of the curriculum.”

Daniela, a young schoolteacher who prefers not to give her last name, says that using the schools to promote an ideology “is normal” and adds that the teachers are trained to “include elements in every class that develop the students politically.” In her classroom she talks to them “about socialism, the Revolution, and all the past history that none of them have experienced.”

By hiring private teachers and tutors, many families not only try to improve the academic performance of their children, but also to reduce the level of ideology in the teaching. “I’ve spoken with the math teacher who comes here to the house,” says Claudia’s grandmother, “so that the math problems don’t keep putting political examples in front of the child.”

In one of last year’s schoolbooks, the student solved an arithmetic word problem that said, “If Rene Gonzales, one of the Five Heroes, was sentenced to prison in 2001 and released in 2011, how many years did he spend in jail?”

“We give her a lot of fantasies, fairy tales, and craft books to read, to offset what she receives in school,” says her grandmother.

Claudia dreams of becoming a lawyer someday, but her parents are more concerned with the present. “We fear she will become someone who shouts slogans and lose this desire to debate and search for the truth that we teach at home,” explains her mother. “I have a dilemma,” she confesses, “I know that we are raising her to cause trouble for herself.”

As the children advance to the higher grades, ideology becomes even more present. Leo studies technology in Pinar del Rio where, a few weeks ago, the teacher lashed out against a dissident. He called him a “millionaire, traitor and enemy of the country,” although he didn’t know that Leo knew the man through his family. The young man stood up in the middle of the classroom and shouted that it was all lies. When he told his parents, they supported him, but this is an isolated case.

As a general rule, teenagers listen passively to the political harangues delivered in the classroom and their families call on them not to contradict the official discourse. “I warn him to say yes to everything they tell him, because why set himself apart?” says Layren Lopez, the mother of seven-year-old Harold who already knows how to read and write. “This is nearing its end,” says the woman.

Recently, Harold’s parents obtained Spanish nationality, through the so-called Spanish Law of Grandchildren. “I have a contact who will help me to enroll the boy in the school for children of diplomats,” says the mother. The school, in an exclusive area of Havana’s ​​Playa district, has its own curriculum, which in no way resembles the education system on the island.

“We will have to pay tuition in convertible pesos and his grandmother will take him there in the car, because it’s a long way from us. But there he will not have to say Viva Fidel!” says the relieved Lopez, who receives financial support from her father, who lives in Barcelona, ​​to avoid what he calls “the brainwashing of the child.”

Ideology reaches its highest levels in the teaching of history. At the Tenth Congress of the Young Communists Union (UJC), several delegates called for teaching the subject “creatively, in order to make the class ideal place to promote patriotic and revolutionary sentiments,” and, in particular, to develop youth leaders for the organization who are well trained “politically and ideologically.”

Classes on national history do not support nuances. The Cuban Republic was not sovereign and was “corrupt”; José Marti is the “intellectual author” of the assault on the Moncada barracks; the armed struggle in the Sierra Maestra is “a continuation of the wars of independence” and, “before 1959, children in Cuba had no schools or shoes.” Deviating from the script could result in a note of disapproval.

*Translator’s note: Moncadistas refers to those who launched a failed assault on Santiago de Cuba’s Moncada Army Barracks on 26 June 1953, generally considered the start of the Revolution.

For Cuban Scientists Paradise Is Abroad / 14ymedio, Lilianne Ruiz

The subsidies that accompany scholarships abroad is also a motivation to apply for them. (CC)
The subsidies that accompany scholarships abroad is also a motivation to apply for them. (CC)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Lilianne Ruiz, Havana, 6 November 2015 – He arrived in Berlin without a single euro in his pocket and with a pound of beans in his suitcase. Ariel Urquiola remembers his arrival in Germany to do post-doctoral work at Humboldt University’s Leibniz Institute. His departure from Cuba, like that of so many young specialists, was motivated by the desire to do serious science.

After graduating and earning a doctorate in cellular and molecular biology, Urquiola felt he had reached his peak inside the island. He was looking for a laboratory where he could examine zoological specimens but the lack of available technology didn’t allow him to study in his own country.

“Here I could work with at most one species, and in year have limited results,” he related during a visit to Cuba. “In contrast, in Germany, in just a month and a half I was able to process 503 samples,” that had arrived in Berlin from Cuba through institutional channels, he related with satisfaction. continue reading

His work consists of analyzing samples of the zoology of the Sierra de los Organos mogotes in Cuba’s Pinar del Rio province, research that he continued at the Leibniz Institute. The eyes of the young scientist shone when he explained that the results of his study might conclude that the population of the area by wild species “is much more ancient that is thought.” Like many other Cuban university graduates who have emigrated, he feels that abroad his work has potential.

In comparison to doctorates earned within the country, options abroad have a much more professional profile, according to the majority of those surveyed. A young Cuban biochemist who earned her PhD at the Catholic University of Chile points out “the quality and importance of scientific journals where research results are published.”

Cuban university students can choose from among more than 300 scholarships offered to PhDs by foreign governments. Many decide not to return to the island after having benefitted from one of them

Dr. Ileana Sorolla, director of the Center for International Migration Studies at the University of Havana, said in the journal Alma Mater: “Cuban employment centers need to readjust (…) to try to recover talent, so that returning to the country is an alternative. And not just because of an ethical, moral, political and ideological commitment, but also for business advantages.”

According to the official, looking at migration patterns of Cubans today, “some 23.9% are people with a university education,” and “around 86% of professionals who emigrate do it before they are 40.”

The subsidy that accompanies these scholarships abroad is also a motivation to apply for them. In the case of the German Academic Exchange Service, the researcher receives a monthly allowance of 1,000 euros to cover living costs, plus assistance for travel expenses, health insurance and a lump sum for study and research, among other secondary benefits.

Although the cost of living is much higher in these countries, conditions are incomparably better for these high-achieving university graduates, used to living in Cuba under the same roof as their parents and grandparents, unable to even afford dinner at a restaurant.

Just outside the Canadian embassy in Havana, several young people were waiting on Monday to start the consular procedures. A couple was reviewing all the documents they would present at an interview for the expeditious entry program to qualified professionals who want to settle in that northern country. Each year, 25,000 places are awarded worldwide.

Candidates must pass tests of English or French, deposit an amount of $ 5,000 in Canadian funds in a bank account in Canada, and confirm that their profession is included in the National Classification of Occupations. The applicant’s and spouse’s ages and levels of education are also considered for granting residence visas. This path is widely used by graduates of scientific specialties in Cuban universities.

The one in greatest demand is the program to settle in Quebec, which does not require a bank account in Canada, but applicants must give proof of sufficient funds to cover travel and subsistence. On the consulate website all the details are explained, but given the poor internet connectivity on the island, the information spreads by word of mouth.

Planning to settle in Quebec is Maikel Ruiz, holder of a degree in mathematics from the University of Havana, who considers that the financial benefits are not as important as the passion for scientific discovery. “When a professional is accustomed to living with an income below 40 convertible pesos a month, getting above the poverty threshold allows you to dedicate yourself completely to what interests you most.” It is not about “the mere fact of making money, eating or dressing better” he says.

Ruiz is the only graduate of his year who remains in Cuba, and currently teaches private math classes to high school students to pay for the legalization of his university degree*, an airplane ticket and the emigration paperwork that will bring him to “the land of snow and opportunities,” as he calls it. The visa alone costs 445 convertible pesos (CUC).

If someone wants to do probability mathematics at the theoretical level, they will consider going as a scholarship recipient to Paris or Toulouse,” explains Ruiz. “If they are interested in Geometry, they will think about the United States or Germany,” he points out, although he also believes that “to get this training in a dynamic system it’s better to go to Brazil or France, and those interested in number theory, they will do well in Hungary.” As he speaks it’s like watching him stick colored pins into an imaginary map, but none of them are stuck in Cuba.

For Cuban mathematicians, as for other scientists, the world out there seems an infinite universe of opportunities. “Mathematics needs to be engaged in with  new technologies,” reflects Ruiz, sure that as a specialist in his field he will have many work opportunities.

Dr. Urquiola is one of those few professionals who undertook the path of emigration and who now returns frequently. He carried out several projects in Pinar del Rio, including the development of an agroforestry farm in Viñales where he created a nursery to preserve Cuban timber species. “I am working hard with local authorities so that they will allow me to find ways of doing this work,” he says, with that air of tenacity that is achieved when one is “coming and going.”

*Translator’s note: Emigrating Cubans must pay fees that can run into the hundreds of dollars to the Cuban government to get certified copies of their degrees or professional experience. 

An Interview of a Friend / Lilianne Ruiz

Lilianne Ruiz, 9 October 2015 — Oscar needs visibility to get them to stop bothering him in his work just because he is the person he is and because he defends his identity. Typical of those systems where they try to prevent any participation, initiative, voting, creativity. Imagine what kind of hell it is when those who are violent, idle, less intelligent, those who repress, restrict the freedom of the rest.

This interview with Oscar Casanella, my friend, is late appearing in other media and so I am publishing it in my blog.

Oscar Casanella Saint-Blancard has a degree in Biochemistry and is a researcher at the National Institute of Oncology and Radiobiology (INOR). He is also an adjunct professor of Immunology with the Faculty of Biology of the University of Havana, where he has taught without receiving wages since 2006. Despite all the services he offers to society, Casanella has been continually harassed by the political police from Thursday 5 December 2013, when he planned to throw a party to welcome home Ciro Javier Díaz Penedo, a graduate in Mathematics from the University of Havana and a musician in the punk rock band “Porno para Ricardo,” who has been his friend for twenty years and who was returning to Cuba. continue reading

In 2008 Casanella won a scholarship in bioinformatics at the Complutense University of Madrid for 2009 to 2011, and received training in bioinformatics at the Swiss Institute of this specialty in the city of Lausanne. He is currently studying the National Collaborative Curriculum PhD Program in Bioinformatics coordinated by the Virtual Center for Bioinformatics.

Ruiz: When did the harassment against you in your work start?

Casanellas: Both the Deputy Director of INOR, Lorenzo Anasagasti, as well as Pedro Angulo Wilfredo Fernandez Cabezas, both members of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC), despite my reputation of 10 years of good work in the INOR, believed the lies of the political police officials that my friends and I were mercenaries, terrorists, annexationist [i.e. want Cuba to become part of the United States] and I continued to maintain friendly relations with Ciro and friends in the opposition that I had met through him. Anasagasti removed me from the post of Executive Secretary of the Forum of Science and Technology of INOR, and he has prevented me from participating in research projects with the centers of the Havana Scientific Center.

He also coerced my colleagues to give him copies of my legal documents, which contain the facts and items violated by the State Security and their collaborators and the letter sent by me to Raul Castro, with an attachment documenting the excellent opinions of me from my colleagues, my neighbors and my students at the University of Havana, claiming that all these documents are enemy propaganda.

 Ruiz: What is your work situation at the moment?

Casanellas: The most recent events are the constraints Anasagasti Angulo is putting on my colleagues. He demands that several laboratory chiefs at INOR’s research department block my access to them with the argument that there is a rule at the center that restricts access to the labs. However, he demands that this apply only to me, not to the rest of the employees who, although they don’t belong to a laboratory can freely enter any one of them, so I feel discriminated against.

I am one of the professors of the molecular biology module, a subject that is taught to doctors who are doing their specialty in oncology, and the person responsible for coordinating the instruction said something very sad to me–distressed and with tears in his eyes–that Anasagasti demanded that I not enter his laboratory, not even to work. This person is very psychologically unbalanced by all the pressure from Anasagasti and is thinking about asking to step down from INOR due to the ethical, professional and personal dilemma, because in addition to the working level we also have a strong friendship.

Anasagasti told another person that he preferred he not do a thesis on which I did the bio-statistic analysis. Despite the pressure, this person allowed and recognized my collaboration on his thesis.

Last year I had planned to teach a course on bio-informatics for researchers and interested workers from INOR and for students from the Biology Faculty at the University of Havana. I obtained authorization from my immediate boss, a classroom was reserved with the teaching department, but Anasagasti didn’t give me authorization. I asked him for a response regarding this negative and he told me, “Oscar, get it into your head that I am going to do everything possible so that you will not have a future in this institution, and I am going to make every step you try to take difficult.”

That is, for the deputy director, his work as a collaborator with State Security — applying the psychological war against me, which has as a secondary effect of a war against my colleagues as well — is more important than researching cancer, teaching and improving the medical and non-medical work of the INOR.

Ruiz: Have you heard anything about the deputy director doing the same thing to other workers?

Casanellas: Yes, Anasagasti showed up with the State Security agents “Victor” and “Mario” on a Sunday last August at the home of Dr. Carlos Vazquez, chief of peripheral tumors at INOR to intimidate him because of his friendship with Manual Cuesta Morua, leader of the Social-Democratic Progressive Arc Party.

Ruiz: Do the conditions at INOR guarantee the best development for the research projects?

Casanellas: I can tell you that many supplies and materials are arranged for personally by the workers. They aren’t provided by the institution. For example, INOR does not provide us with water of the quality required to carry out the experiments. Personally, I have had to go to the  Center of Molecular Immunology in my own car with my own gasoline to look for several gallons of water for INOR research labs, as this center does have the necessary equipment for the purification process.

Years ago we transported cell lines on public buses between INOR and the Scientific Center. The funny part of the story is that in a crowded bus people opened a space around us as a result of my spilling some liquid nitrogen at 196 degrees below zero, which instantly evaporated. People said we were terrorists who were transporting acid.

Imagine that I am doing a PhD in bioinformatics and INOR won’t give me internet access. The chiefs have it. Internet access can already be considered a human right. But here this tool is prioritized for the political cadres, not for the researchers. So I consider myself an off-line bio-informatics specialist.

We recently had the opportunity to publish an article on brain metastases in the World Journal of Oncology Research. The magazine editors ask authors of the selected articles for around $200 USD for the right to publish. When I discussed it with my work colleagues they thought I was crazy, that INOR would never give that amount.

Thanks to my sister, who lives abroad, who paid this amount, we could publish and now INOR’s name appears in an international scientific journal. Everywhere in the world there are institutions that pay the publications who publish their researchers in magazines. In addition, outside of Cuba institutions pay for their workers to have access to scientific journals. We have to ask for help from friends abroad who work in research centers who download items of interest to us and email to them.

Ruiz: Any other anecdotes?

Casanellas: On Tuesday, December 30, 2014 at 11:40 am, I was kidnapped in the INOR by agents from State Security and the PNR (People’s Revolutionary Police). Several members of the INOR leadership left their offices to let the agents use them as they were trying to interrogate me because I had invited several friends to Tania Bruguera’s performance in the Plaza of the Revolution, which for us would have recovered a little of the character of the Civic Plaza [its former name] with the completion of performance.

After an hour, the directors of INOR allowed my kidnapping during work hours and without a warrant. Three police cars took me along with my wife, Eleanne Triff Delgado and my cousin Walter Saint-Blancard Valdes to Tarara. Later after another hour of uncertainty they took us to the Guanabo Police Unit.

I was interrogated by several political police agents, among them agents Victor and Mario, until 9:20 PM. Agent Mario sent us off telling us to be careful because it was night, and the end of the year and there were a lot of accidents.

On the return trip my wife, my cousin and I felt that my cousin’s car, which had also been taken on this journey, had a sound in one of the tires that hadn’t been there before the trip to the PNR Station. When we got to my house we checked it and realized that the bolts that hold the wheel on were making the noise because they were loose.

Anybody Can Have a Bad Day / Lilianne Ruiz

Lili under the sea

Lilianne Ruiz, 22 September 2015 — A great friend always tells me, “When something unpleasant happens to you, just say, ’This happens to us because we are alive.’”  I have wanted to be as delicate as a flower but I must admit that life is not like that, and the hard knocks, some of them, are like a box of chocolates. We must have great expectations and be determined to realize them, or, at least, to start on the path to doing so. Over here there are a bunch of decadent people, it is true, but the sun keeps rising every day, and life is so beautiful.

Today, I am gifting myself this poem by Octavio Paz, that appears in Rayuela, and I am sharing it with everyone with whom I speak today, because it has always moved me.


My steps on this street
on another street
I hear my steps
passing on this street

Only the fog is real.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison