The Mass of the Bread Line / 14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez

Victor Ariel Gonzalez, Havana, 4 May 2015 – His shirt, once white and elegant, has turned yellow with age. He wears frayed pants and well-worn dress shoes, perhaps a size or two larger than ideal. Contrasting with his clothes, on his head he wears a black beret with an embroidered red star, and slung over his shoulder the tiniest bag emblazoned with the Cuban flag.

The old man reads today’s Granma newspaper in a loud voice alongside the line to buy bread. Excited, he maintains a grandiloquent tone more mocking than declarative, and pauses when he wants to impart gravity to a phrase. Adding some of his own details, such as news of past decades and great failures that have left their mark in his deceptive memory.

His voice fades at the end of an official announcement. Few are those who take their role so seriously. Among those who could not help but listen to him, some smile and gaze at him with expressions of complicity, others remain serious, absorbed in their own problems. Most don’t even pay attention to the nutcase. “Poor thing,” whispers a woman.

Then the old man, feeling that he’s done a favor to the public and after the oven beeps, offers plastic bags at one Cuban peso each to carry the hot bread. The line moved, and even the most worried faces come alive a little. The fantasy ended and the rhythm of the city hurries everyone, even the least sane.

Making a Living From Trash / 14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez

Collection point (14ymedio)
Collection point (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez, Havana, 1 May 2015 – They appear silently, without anyone taking notice, a little after dawn.  They will not hide again until nightfall, when they return home or camp out in some corner of the city to count their profits.  They used to be called “divers,” not without a certain disdain; now, the activity is gaining organization as well as workers.  Without the collectors of raw materials, Havana would be an even dirtier city.

Jesus is one of them.  Dragging a mountain of cardboard pieces on his cart, he goes to a buying house with the merchandise acquired today.  For each kilo they pay one peso and 20 cents, but sometimes he gets other material – pieces of aluminum or bronze – and they pay him more.  “It all depends on knowing how to search,” he says.

At Benjumeda and Retiro Streets in Central Havana is one of the warehouses where the collectors go to patiently wait their turn in line.  Each one carries the merchandise however he can, whether in a street sweeper cart or a trailer hitched to a car, a luxury, this latter one, uncommon in the business.  In Cuba, gathering rubbish is a job like any other, because it barely provides enough for survival. continue reading

Around the recycling industry there has been created a whole network of private workers who play various roles.  The “buying houses” can be individuals, like the one at Belascoain and Santo Tomas Streets, next to another state collection warehouse.  The difference between the two may be, for example, that in the private ones they also buy the imported beer bottles that no other site accepts.

With the unveiling of the private sector came the legalization of this kind of job.  The trash collectors must pay around 30 pesos a month for their license, in addition to social security.  Their tax system does not include the obligation to present a sworn statement, explains Jesus while he waits for another truck.  The one that was there has just left completely full.

But there are also workers who operate without authorization, as an extra job.  They see trash in the street, pick it up and discreetly put it in a little bag.  “Are you going to throw that out, sir?”  they ask when a neighbor approaches the containers at the corner of his house with a box of empty bottles.

The illegals must always be careful about the police, but the legal ones also are harassed sometimes, above all if their presence coincides with an important event in the city and it is not “proper” for them to be in the streets, wandering and ragged, because they “mar” the environment.

The official media estimate that 430,000 tons of trash is recycled each year, which means a savings of 212 million dollars for the national economy.  Sixty-four percent of the collection – which includes a first cleaning, sorting and transporting of material to the collection point – is achieved thanks to the army of individuals who roam the streets.  They see an empty can, they pick up an empty can.

Prices for trash (14ymedio)
Prices for trash (14ymedio)

Those in line at Benjumeda think that figure falls short, and they accuse the State of barely employing a few trucks and waiting, while they bring everything.  “We must really account for 80 to 90% of the total gathered,” estimates the driver of a Fiat who pulls a small trailer loaded with pieces of stainless steel and who clarifies that he does not regularly devote himself to recycling.

“In the Carlos III [shopping center] they do it, but I don’t know anywhere else like this,” says a young man referring to the small raw materials warehouse located next to the crowded store.  Some more warehouses exist, but not many.  Big Havana stores have one or another hidden space dedicated to accumulating the boxes, now empty and disassembled, awaiting transport.

“Those in charge of doing it don’t pick up the trash on time,” according to a recent television report.  The official report said that “in most cases there is no control over the contracts, there is a lack of stringent performance among the involved parties, there is slowness to approve cancellations of resources and equipment, and they do not fulfill delivery plans.”

“Big enterprises have to deal with their own rubbish and finance the process with their own resources,” the report specified.  Thus, the private sector demonstrates a management capacity superior to that of the State, working on a smaller scale.

The deficiencies, therefore, exist at an institutional level.  In Cuba the infrastructure for the treatment of trash is insufficient.  Dumps are lacking – those that exist still do not use any system for sorting wastes – and transportation is scarce.  Also, there is a lack of industrial interest and of exportation of re-useable material.

All these conditions mean that there is not an effective collection system, and trash accumulates on the corners.  Fires are frequent, and the micro-dumps constitute a serious sanitation problem, which is aggravated in the poorer neighborhoods, where service is even worse than in the downtown and tourists areas.

Although these problems have been recognized by the authorities, no measure has been announced to address trash collection via a coherent state policy.

Meanwhile, it is possible to see gatherers working at dawn, after each important event that attracts the public and generates a lot of trash.  Without a contract, without security for the dangerous circumstances or other conditions of their work.  That is how it works, the silent army that lives from the trash of others.

Translated by MLK

New Stoves and State Policies / 14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez

Saucepan and rice cooker in Cuban kitchen
Saucepan and rice cooker in Cuban kitchen

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez, Havana, 24 April 2015 – She didn’t have any luck. Like many, Estrella is one of those Cubans who faces the difficult task of feeding her children today without being very sure of what she will feed them tomorrow. Even still, hers is a family that is not classified as being in need of social assistance; thus, they will not receive any help from the State to buy the new induction stovetops that will go on sale “in a few days.”

This week it was announced that very soon everything will be ready to start the sale of this new kitchen equipment along with other items – a lidded pot, frying pan, pitcher and coffee pot – to the nearly 80,000 nuclear families who receive government assistance. The official media assures that, “the conditions have already been created in the stores of the special program network, belonging to the Ministry of Domestic Trade.” continue reading

The conditions include 257 “adequately equipped” workshops to repair the equipment, which carry a three-month commercial warranty. It has also been made easier for the vendors to pass “a training course” to connect the equipment and test it.

The plan has been designed to reduce energy consumption in the residential sector; induction stoves are up to 75% more efficient than resistance stoves, according to the concerned authorities, and, they add, they are easy to use, provide comfort and are more durable.

Behind this decision is none other than the Council of Ministers, whose policy has been responsible for other “bold moves” such as the unrationed sale of liquefied gas in various parts of the country “as an experiment.” Also, since 2014, and thanks to the “Food Cooking Program,” it is possible to buy home appliances through bank loans. In effect, the question of cooking in Cuba is a matter of State.

Estrella was one of those who bought her rice cooker on credit. Of the 7,800 who applied since the beginning, 7,355 have been approved and 5,828 delivered – at a cost of 15 million pesos* – among which we find hers.

In effect, cooking in Cuba is a matter of State

However, it wasn’t totally easy. First, because this pharmacy employee doesn’t earn enough wages for the bank to have confidence she can make on-time payments for her rice cooker. As in capitalism, lending to individuals in Socialist Cuba involves a risk analysis that weighs an individual’s ability to repay the debt.

Secondly, because she wouldn’t have been able to afford it without the help of some family members. But Estrella needed the pot, even though she would have to sell more medicines under the table than usual.

The issue of subsidies granted by Social Assistance is a delicate one. The form of payment with respect to the appliances that will soon be sold has not been completely defined, except that the acquisition of the stoves could be fully or partially charged to the State.

The Ministry of Labor and Social Security (MTSS) has declared the Provincial Administration Council is “the collective body that approves the sale of these stoves and decides which method of payment will be applied” in each case. To accomplish this they will work on standards for “socioeconomic assessment.”

Yusimí Campos, an official with MTSS, informed the national media that, among the families not benefitting there are also those “who cook their food with other services such as manufactured gas, liquefied gas or (…) those who live in remote areas and who have no electricity service.”

Estrella, who has piped gas in her Central Havana apartment, will have to wait a while to acquire a modern stove. Meanwhile, she has to finish paying the bank for her Chinese made Haier refrigerator. The last thing Estrella wants is another debt. And with regards to food, “something will come up,” she says, while showing a small reserve of eggs and rice that keeps her calm, at least for now.

*Translator’s note: Roughly running the math on these numbers gives the price for a rice cooker as somewhere between $80 and $100+ dollars. This is for an appliance that sells in the U.S. (looking at the one in the photo) for plus-or-minus $20. In other words, the government “loans” Cubans as much as six months wages, so that they can purchase one rice cooker.

138 Votes for Chaviano / 14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by MLK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Censors Talk about Censorship / 14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez, Havana, 30 March 2015 — The Surprised Pupil is a program whose first mistake is the name. With quite mediocre staging, presentation and content, really this television program has nothing surprising to see. But to hear, maybe some viewer or another was hoping that its most recent on-air output would tackle seriously a very thorny topic: censorship.

However, that viewer with high expectations was soon disappointed. Censorship is a problem that affects every Cuban producer today, but The Pupil did not worry about that. It was foreign censorship, that which nations supposedly suffer “under the dominion of big corporations,” that occupied the program.

There was even a segment dedicated to McCarthyism, that period of “repressive delirium” in the United States in which “great artists lived through times of accusations, interrogations, trials and torture,” said the program’s host. Not even hinted at were the anti-intellectual raids undertaken by the Cuban government, those whose spirit was defined by Fidel Castro in his phrase reminiscent of Mussolini: “Within the Revolution everything, outside the Revolution nothing.” continue reading

It would be too much to ask that they openly address chapters as regrettable as the Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP), the university purification processes, or the repudiation rallies. Or to remember how less than 40 years ago listening to The Beatles could lead to suspicion. Those pages of the national history have been forgotten by the official media.

If, after all, few know who Cabrera Infante, Reinaldo Arenas or Heberto Padilla were; and if the ghosts of Pinero or Lezama Lima have suffered exorcisms of posthumous atonement, then what sense does it make to speak of censorship in Cuba?

Maybe none for those guests who lent their words to The Surprised Pupil. They used, for example, statements by the actor Enrique Molina to a Spanish speaking chain for a digression about the financing of projects. As “there exists no state budget for filmmaking, [Cuban] directors have to seek financing abroad,” said he who played Silvestre Canizo on the popular soap opera Tierra Brava.

Molina, who obviously does not have any intention of demanding anything from the Ministry of Culture, blamed the lack of money on the lack of foreign producers “with good intentions and honesty” who seek something different than reflecting “the ugly things of Havana” or “everything challenging the politics of the country.” That, together with the difficulties that the “blockade” involves in bringing Cuban cinema abroad, constitutes censorship for this artist.

For the musician Fidel Diaz Castro, “the censors of the contemporary world have turned into diplomats” because they say: “My fellow, I would like to place your work, but that doesn’t sell.” Here he referred to the censorship imposed by marketplace preferences, although it could well be an attempt to justify his own incompetence.

Another of the guests was Iroel Sanchez, a key figure in the official blogosphere in a country without the Internet. The blogger spoke of a documentary that criticizes the media groups owned by financial conglomerates. “In the United States one can speak ill of a Democratic or a Republican president,” said Sanchez, “but (…) you cannot speak badly of the owners of those big finance groups that control the means of communication.”

Iroel Sanchez did not cite the example in which the governing party and the owner of the means of communication are the same. This is precisely the Cuban case where the Communist Party is the exclusive owner of the country’s media.

The common denominator throughout The Pupil was the American topic. Judging by the final message, there persists in that country a fierce repression of transnational reach. And as Cuban television said it, doubting it is strictly prohibited. There was no time to mention those on the Island who seek to issue a critical judgment outside of the given guidelines. Is that also the fault of an external enemy?

The Surprised Pupil is indeed very badly named. The greater error is having conceived as a surprise, and not as an insult, that the official discourse goes unpunished yet again. That is what happens when censors have no one to censor them.

Translated by MLK

An Academy for Civil Society / 14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez

Graduation, Fundacion Sucesores
Graduation, Fundacion Sucesores

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Víctor Ariel González, Mantilla (Havana), March 12 2015 – Fifteen minutes until class begins and the students that have been arriving converse under the shade of a tree. Once a week, Carlos Millares’ humble patio hosts a very peculiar meeting. It’s the headquarters of the Fundacion Sucesores, or the “Successors Foundation,” an academy created to train members of civil society in the use of tools for leadership.

Professor Millares directs the program, but the idea – which gave way to a pilot course in 2013 and since then has been repeated three times – came from a young man called Frank Abel García, the coordinator of the academy, who waits for students and guides them continue reading

hrough the steep streets of Mantilla, a neighborhood situated in the south of Havana.

Once seated in the classroom, both relate how they came up with the idea of starting this school. “I worked for Hablemos Press (“We Speak Press” – an independent press group) and interviewed opposition figures like Carlos, for example,” says Frank Abel García, who is also an executive member in the Mesa de Diálogo de la Juventud Cubana (Cuban Youth Roundtable), a project aimed at strengthening youth dialogue and leadership to propel Cuba’s democratization. “When I got here, I took the time to voice my concern about civil society and he made me realize that what I really wanted was to teach a course on leadership.”

“In that moment I only expected to take a group of young people and offer them the possibility of learning about topics like democracy from some of civil society’s personalities,” adds Frank Abel. “We began a pilot course with five students. Then we prepared the first course itself, which welcomed ten participants. From there, eight graduated.” In total, the academy already has around thirty graduates.

For his part, Carlos Millares knew many independent leaders who might be interested in such a project. “Indeed, that’s how it was,” recalls this veteran of the opposition, also director of a center on civil society studies. Political analyst and opinion columnist, Millares recounts that he studied Sociology at the university when, in 1974, he was expelled for “talking about what he wasn’t supposed to talk about.” Those times were too dark for an opinion of even slight skepticism. His courses on leadership are the academy’s main dish.

The necessary “succession of the past generation of the opposition by new young people” came to light when looking for a name that would make the idea concrete. That was how the Fundacion Sucesores was created. “The objective is to prepare young people with the characteristics needed to lead civil society,” Frank Abel García points out, “to prepare people to be able to continue and improve the work of their organizations.”

Would you accept people from the Union of Young Communists (UJC) in the bizarre case that someone might be interested?

“Yes. The academy does not make a distinction based on political inclinations.”

 Professor Millares describes the program as “an element of cohesion” for diverse groups whose members take part in its conferences. “An interrelation is created between students, who at the same time exchange with prestigious leaders.” Here we don’t mind where the student hails from, be it from the political party Cuba Independiente y Democrática (CID – Independent and Democratic Cuba) or from the Juventud Activa Cuba Unida (JACU – Active Cuban Youth United), an anti-government civil group.

Would you accept people from the Union of Young Communists (UJC) in the bizarre case that someone might be interested? The Foundation’s coordinator and vice-president responds: “Yes. The academy does not make a distinction based on political inclinations. We admit all those who want to take part in the course because the goal is not to impose a way of thinking, but to offer knowledge on which to base individual opinion and work.”

The proposal has been growing in popularity. The current semester welcomed twenty registration applications for only ten available spots. Carlos Millares favors focused attention, and thus favors fewer students; of course, they must be able to put in effort and prepare very well.

The authors of the program are well aware of the pressure that State Security forces tend to exert. That is the reason why initial enrollment can reach twelve, to account for the eventual “losses” throughout the semester. “Last semester there was a married couple that came to classes, but they worked for the Public Health System and they were threatened with being removed from their jobs if they continued with us,” the leadership professor relates.

They have also received police citations and suffered detentions here and there. Although they “do not bother us behind closed doors,” says Millares, “for government authorities, we are part of that civil society they accuse of being fabricated.”

“Last semester there was a married couple that came to classes, but they worked for the Public Health System and they were threatened with being removed from their jobs if they continued with us”

In spite of the harassment, the academy has continued to consolidate. It already has several sessions and boasts a community of graduates. In addition to Millares and García, the Executive Board also has two vice-presidents: Saúl Quiala for public relations and Maikel Pardo for the press.

Fundación Sucesores maintains relations with international organizations that support the development of its courses. Its future perspectives are to expand into Cuba’s interior, and they have already begun to achieve it with the enrollment of students from Pinar del Río province. Additionally, they are working to prepare a multimedia library. In the long term, the academy aspires to become a sort of “university of the opposition.”

Enrollment is by open call. It is necessary to posses a High School or technical diploma as a minimum, given the level of the content discussed in the conferences. For the course’s final evaluation, a project for civil society must be conceived, and it’s not just a mere academic exercise; some of the ideas developed in past courses have been successful and are currently being applied.

Courses are forty semester hours and are taught in two-hour weekly sessions at the Foundation as well as the headquarters of affiliated regional organizations. In addition to the subject of leadership, there are conferences about economics, political parties, anti-segregation movements, new technologies, and many other areas, all discussed by guest experts, among which are renowned opposition figures ranging from political leaders to LGBT activists.

The program is updated each year. Recently, the topic of Cuba-U.S. relations has been added, and, for this upcoming April, human rights observers will be trained in coordination with the Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission led by Elizardo Sánchez.

Back in the patio of that Mantilla home, while Carlos Millares teaches his course on leadership – the current semester’s second meeting – Frank Abel García finishes explaining the functioning of the school.

Speaking with students at the end of the conference, one can perceive the diverse stories that shaped each of the course’s participants. Eliosbel Garriga, from Pinar del Río, is a member of the Movimiento Integración Racial, or “Racial Integration Movement”: “We come in whatever we can,” he comments in reference to the difficult mission that is waking up in the early morning in order to travel from Los Palacios, where he lives, “but I want to develop leadership skills.”

There is also Josué, a young member of the CID party: “I have the intention of becoming a leader and my dad told me that this was a good course.” His father, Esteban Ajetes, is next to him. “Within our movement, knowledge and training are lacking. It’s the first thing needed to be influential in these apolitical times,” he reflects on.

Another Esteban, but surnamed García, is an independent journalist and editor of the JACU’s bulletin. He notes, “In our current circumstances [as a nation] it’s difficult to be a leader because even a sportsperson exhibits more leadership than a political figure.” They all agree on that leaders are not only born or made, but are actually little bit of both things.

Translated by Fernando Fornaris

Union of Young Communists (UJC): Who Is For That? / 14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez

9th Congress of the UJC (EFE)
9th Congress of the UJC (EFE)

14ymedio bigger

14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez, Havana, 24 February 2015 — The only thing Damian shares with Karl Marx may be the thick beard. In everything else, the Havana engineering student is quite different from the German philosopher who wrote Das Kapital. And the main contrast between them is found in their ways of thinking because for this young man who enjoys sporting the lumberjack style – the “lumberjack” fashion is spreading through the capital – the last thing he wants to talk about is class struggle, historical demands or communism. “Who is for that?” he asks.

To judge by his tone, it seems few. Instead, youngsters like Damian and his girlfriend, or the friends with whom they usually meet in places like the Bertold Brecht café theater or the Cuban Art Factory, prefer to talk about European football leagues while drinking beer paid for in hard currency. Things like the 10th Congress of the Union of Young Communists (UJC) appear nowhere in their conversations, despite the official propaganda that has been unleashed in an intense campaign about the event. According to the press permitted in Cuba, this “will be a congress that looks like Cuban youth.”

Adhering strictly to that maxim, for starters, a good part of the delegates to the Congress must come from abroad, given the number of people who are leaving Cuba. Of the almost half million who have emigrated in the last ten years, a high percentage are young continue reading

people seeking opportunities that their country is incapable of offering them. Damian talks about that also, his desire to leave, and about something curious: the majority of his friends who have managed to do it used to belong to the UJC. “It’s a double standard,” he says. The most radical and exclusive leftist militants went on to live under “cruel” capitalism.

Nevertheless, the increasing emigration is a taboo subject in the current municipal assemblies preceding the big meeting of the young communists. According to a leader of the organization interviewed Monday on national television, such assemblies are in their final stage and from them must emerge a document with “the major problems raised” by their members then to be discussed in the “grass-roots committees.” Only then would topics be chosen for taking to the final Congress, and this via mechanisms perhaps too arbitrary, as usually happens in a country governed by an elite that stopped being young a long time ago.

Among those pre-Congress “proposals,” the leader said, “the transformations themselves of the organization” have prominence. Although there are also “recreation as a necessity,” and the ever greater challenges that globalized cultural consumption poses for “proper” values; or the search for fun spaces whose availability in Cuba now depends only on how much money – that beast that communism tried to eradicate with time – the customers are able to offer.

It is also said that other subjects from the official list will be youth employment and opportunities for study. This Congress will be carried out in a context in which the private sector is gaining appeal in the face of the previously omnipresent State and where university courses are of little use in earning a decent wage. The “updating of the economic model” has not prevented the phenomenon of labor migration from skilled positions to others of lower skill but greater remuneration.

One could not miss, among the “proposals made” that the communist leader mentioned, the “responsibility of the youth with respect to the continuity of the Revolution.” Something logical coming from one who defines himself as the “vanguard” of young Cubans and whose main function is indoctrination. “The UJC not only has the responsibility for the revolutionary and communist formation of new generations, but also (…) that the organization that represents them, directs them, guides them, and leads them towards each one of the transformations of our society,” said the interviewee in the morning report.

Accused of being elitist for assuming the right to speak on behalf of the broad spectrum of young society, the Union is demonstrating a lack of a monolithic nature that contrasts with the discourse of assured historical continuity. Rarely do ordinary Cubans hear on official television an expression of lack of trust in an institution that used to be sacred. This is the reason that the organization’s directors themselves are considering working more closely with the “youth universe,” a classification with which they usually refer to non-members.

The most novel feature about this Congress is the new landscape that emerged after December 17 and the consequent view of rapprochement with the United States, the preferred geographic destination of youth who, like the unbeliever Damian, pursue the dream of prospering outside of Cuba.

Belonging to the UJC is no longer a guarantee to access the state meritocracy. Even the most popular singers, even if they keep a prudent distance from the open political opposition, have never carried communist youth membership cards. What icons or deals does the UJC have to offer?

Traditionally, to be part of the organization meant an advantage for those who aspired to good recommendations in their records, obligatory for a university career or a job, the guarantee of belonging to a more favored caste. Today, with young Cubans competing to see who has the best cell phone, it is no longer like that. Without having been officially recognized, the principal enemies today of the Union of Young Communists are political apathy, the loss of its significance and its function as a social placeholder.

The tie to the UJC has turned into a stigma and even a cause of ridicule among youth. Young people often call its members “militontos” (member-idiots) in their private conversations. In a society where intransigence stopped being a virtue and everyone resorts to illegality in order to live, the role of the “correct” has lost too much impact and is even satirized by official media. “Who is for that?” Damian, who definitely “is not for that,” repeats over and over.

Translated by MLK

“Check out how free this country is!” / 14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez

Presentation about the book ‘From Confrontation to Efforts at “Normalization.”  The Policy of the United States towards Cuba.’ (14ymedio)
Presentation about the book ‘From Confrontation to Efforts at “Normalization.” The Policy of the United States towards Cuba.’ (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez, Havana, 29 January 2015 — “In Vietnam, Yoani Sanchez would be in prison,” says Rafael Hernandez, editor of the magazine Temas (Topics), comparing the Cuban regime with the Vietnamese one. And he adds: “Check out how free this country is!” According to the official researcher, Cuban bloggers “are arrested and released, but they are not put in prison,” as occurs in the southeast Asian continue reading

country, where these cyberspace activists receive “nothing but” jail for being “anti-government.”

The political scientist and essayist offered these observations last Wednesday at the Juan Marinello Center during the presentation about the book “From Confrontation to Efforts at ‘Normalization.’ The Policy of the United States towards Cuba,” by the publisher Social Sciences. One of the authors, Elier Ramirez, participated in the panel discussion held by the magazine.

Just reading its name, one deduces that the essay by Elier Ramirez and Esteban Morales – co-author – reflects the offical Cuban position about the rapprochement between the Island and its “historical enemy.” The word “normalization” in its title appears in quotation marks because, among other reasons, “the United States has always understood normalization from the position of domination,” says Ramirez. “There is no change in its strategic objectives [basically, regime change in Cuba, but] a profound tactical adjustment” behind the negotiations between Washington and Havana, according to the author.

This work had already been released, at least once, during the presentation of the volume “Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana,” written by U.S. researchers Peter Kornbluh and William LeoGrande. But then, last October, the political situation was very different from the current one.

During Wednesday’s presentation about the book, the comparison between Vietnam and Cuba emerged in the context of what Rafael Hernandez considers a double standard in U.S. foreign relations which criticizes Cuba on questions like freedom of expression while not doing the same to other countries. “How do you [the American government] demand from me [the Cuban government] what you do not demand of the Vietnamese who put bloggers in prison?” asked the researcher who is also a moderator of the space Ultimo Jueves (Last Thursday).

Rafael Hernandez also referred to the case of the performance by Tania Bruguera last December 30. In order to justify the attitude of Cuban authorities, he gave as an example a hypothetical megaphone protest in front of the home of the British prime minister. “Before taking out the loudspeaker, they already told him off and got him out of there,” he said, referring to the imaginary protester. “What does that have to do with freedom of expression? What are we talking about?” he added, insisting on the supposed “double standard” of the western discourse with respect to that basic right.

Entering into a process of negotiations that both parties have deemed “historic,” one can no longer speak only of “a relationship between two governments” because now there is also “a relationship between two societies” declared Hernandez, who called for a realization that “there is a new game.”

The official analysts define this “game” as a “form of battle” for preserving the regime, different from all previous battles. This war, certainly is already taking place also in the symbolic realm where the most rancid nationalists have been contaminated by a certain foreign banality, especially American.

It is not strange that an official intellectual like Hernandez expresses himself thus about the rapprochement between the two countries. As far as his comparisons in matters of human rights, it is legitimate to ask what exactly the editor of Temas meant to say. There are three possible interpretations:

  1. Vietnam is a dictatorship.
  2. Cuban bloggers should be prisoners.
  3. We bloggers should feel grateful for the few handouts of freedom that the regime grants us and that it also can take from us at any time, imitating its “sister nation” from southeast Asia.

Translated by MLK

“To remain entrenched” / 14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez

Cuban and US Delegations at the Convention Palace in Havana (kkkk)
Cuban and US Delegations at the Convention Palace in Havana (Fotograma)

14ymedio, VICTOR ARIEL GONZÁLEZ, Havana, 24 January 2015 — We didn’t have to wait too long for an answer. “Yes, we have an enemy” was the title of an opinion article published some days ago by Pinar del Río’s Guerrillero, perhaps in honor to the provincial newspaper’s bellicose name. In any case, this was how the spokesman of the only political party in Cuba’s westernmost province appraised the country’s rapprochement to the United States, which started on December 17: “when the enemy is in your home, he becomes even more dangerous.” continue reading

However, today the Island seems committed to dialogue with the United States regardless of how “dangerous” it might be. On Thursday, a first round of talks regarding the reopening of embassies and “other topics of bilateral interest” took place in Havana. That same day, Granma, the country’s official newspaper, dedicated almost an entire page to an analysis of the current diplomatic process, noting that “diverse are the tendencies that can be observed; from the slightly naïve views of those that think that with it all our problems will be solved, to those that frown upon the recent developments and prefer to remain entrenched.”

Looking back, it turns out that less than two weeks after the local newspaper Guerrillero called for “a new kind of confrontation” with the United States, Granma would publish several lines calling for moderation. That some Cubans prefer “to remain entrenched” does not sound like a positive attitude.

It certainly is not. What’s interesting is that it be recognized as such by a generally intransigent medium like Granma. At risk of seeming infected with the current excessive enthusiasm, I would even say it is a good precedent. Yes, it’s time to be moderates, because this attitude is the only way of negotiating solutions.

Even government officials have recognized certain adverse conditions in Cuba’s quest to resurface undefeated – that is to say without needing to make any concessions – from dialogue with the United States and therefore to remain exactly as we have known it. Among the difficulties are “years of material scarcity, certain weaknesses in the social formation of younger generations, and the loss of some values.” But, the greatest challenge is not a return to a “dependent relationship” with our Northern Neighbor; it is redefining the concept of enmity. And, alongside that, controlling the hope generated by the easing of political tension without seeming a spoilsport.

“There have been and there continue to be deficiencies in the social formation of our children and youths,” says Granma. However, even for those who “are not so young anymore” it seems that “the past no longer exists” and that’s the biggest worry for an ideology that, faced with limited perspective, clings desperately to its past, invoking a disagreement that has lost it followers. In any case, “the reserves of our identity” should save us against those disadvantages.

Both the solitude and fatigue of the Island’s rulers become more tangible with each passing day. The character of the Cuban government has cost it many friends; but currently, as dialogues with the United States unfold, it seems that the regime will also lose its most valuable enemy, the wild card it used to excuse its – many – failures. To remain entrenched is the instinctive response of those who are afraid, even of their own shadows.

Translated by Fernando Fornaris

Cuba’s ruling party and the Havana visit of Roberta Jacobson / 14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez

Roberta Jacobson, Assistant Secretary for Latin America for the US State Department
Roberta Jacobson, Assistant Secretary, Western Hemisphere Affairs, US Department of State

14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez, Havana, 21 January 2015 – The opinions broadcast on Cuban Television spaces such as the National News or the Telesur channel show points in common, although there are also contradictions, with regards to the Havana visit of the Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs from the US Department of State, Roberta Jackson. There are “great expectations,” says the journalist Cristina Escobar; while the analyst Esteban Morales says, “We don’t have many illusions.”

However, everyone recognizes that the negotiations on Thursday will mark a “historic” event, because they will address the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. In short, the Interest Sections in Washington and Havana will be transformed into embassies.

On Tuesday’s National News it was reported that at the high-level meeting Havana “will discuss the banking situation of the Cuban Interest Section in the American capital, which has gone a year without offering normal services because no bank wants to offer them services due to the regulations of the blockade.” continue reading

It was also announced that, “There will be no lack (…) of issues like the fight against narcotrafficking, human trafficking, oil spills, search and rescue, counterterrorism, and confronting epidemics.” According to the official commentary, this information was provided by “a source from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs” on the Island.

Cuba is also anxious to be removed from the United States’ list of states that support international terrorism. That decision depends on President Obama.

Within the current political détente, the official media highlighted the current embargo. “Is the blockade over? Absolutely not,” concluded journalist Cristina Escobar in an analysis before Jacobson’s arrival. The journalist added that “the blockad will end the day that financial transactions between the United States and Cuba are not regulated by Congress,” which will be “a long and complex road.” Coincidentally, a few hours later, during his most important speech of the year, the US president asked Congress to end the Cuban embargo.

As was expected, one of the most fortified trenches on the Cuban side has been nationalist ideology. The regime will talk about human rights, democracy and individual freedoms – “the most difficult issues,” according to Esteban Morales on Telesur – with emphasis on “no interference” from outside and “sovereignty.” Morales argued that the US should not “demand that we follow a direction ordered [by them], in terms of organizing our democratic system and our individual liberties,” and there should also be a willingness to “throw on the table the problems of democracy, human rights and individual freedoms that exist in the US.”

The Cuban analyst does not think our northern neighbor “has renounced a political strategy to regain control of Cuba,” but now our country would have “the possibility of developing a much more positive activity” thanks to the existence of the embassies. Thus, “there will be a much more organized dynamic.”

Another concern of the ruling party is that the final lifting of the embargo might be postponed beyond the Obama administration, because the question would “depend a lot on whether we have a future administration that will stick to this idea.”

While the emphasis of the high-level meeting is diplomatic rapprochement, one agenda item that will be discussed on Thursday that does not go unnoticed is that this Wednesday will be the 28th meeting between the two governments on migration issues. Havana will take the opportunity to discuss the Cuban Adjustment Act, the “wet foot dry foot” policy, and “an interpretation of the document that could change.”

The Cuban side is most likely to oppose a resolution that benefits all those on the Island who emigrate to the United States, a legal phenomenon that creates certain contradictions in this country with regards to migration reform. Paradoxically, those Cubans who are capable of establishing themselves in the United States – thanks largely to the Cuban Adjustment Act – constitute one of the principle sources of income to the regime’s economy.

Turning to the meetings on diplomatic relations, the previous scenario had to be reconfigured in record time. In little over a month, the United States announced the rapprochement with our country, started to implement the legal measures relating to it, and its president asked a Congress dominated by the opposition party to end the half-century embargo. The speed of events is excessive for those who do not usually deal with politics in a timely fashion: the Cuban leaders.

Beyond the expectations and mistrust generated among the Island’s authorities by Roberta Jacobson’s visit, there is a notable sense of consternation. Basically, what the regime is hoping for is that things will proceed slowly, so that they will not have to deal with the consequences of an excessive enthusiasm.

Look But Don’t Touch / 14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez

At Sol and Oficios, there is a closed park and a dry fountain. (14YMEDIO)
At Sol and Oficios, a closed park and a dry fountain. (14YMEDIO)
  • As ancient buildings are crumbling, the vacant lots are transformed into parks that are always closed

14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzales, Havana, 9 January 2015 — A group of tourists stops at the entrance of the “ecological park” on Mercaderes Street, a few steps from the Havana Cathedral. The guide speaks to them about this vacant lot turned into a public space which would be nothing out of the ordinary except for being the only one of its kind that is kept open. Aside from the brief circuit designed for foreign visitors, the parks of Old Havana are always closed.

So functions the fiefdom of Eusebio Leal, Havana’s City Historian. As old buildings crumble, the now-vacant parcels are transformed into gardens to which are added benches, trash cans, shade trees and maybe even a fountain. But, along with all that, they also put a magnificent gate closed with chain and padlock. No one can enter these urban oases.

At the corner of Teniente Rey and Habana there existed until a few years ago a children’s park full of attractions that were never used. The attractions “were burned” in the sun, says a neighbor of the place who remembers the image of children asking why “their park” was closed.

Today, the slides now dismantled, the site remains inaccessible but at least seeks another function in the community. Talking about this is Justo Torres who brought from his native Isabel de Sagua an interest in gardening and urban agriculture. He works at Nelva Oasis, a small gardening business very nearby that coordinated the park’s management with the Historian’s Office – a kind of local government.

Very enthusiastically, Torres confesses to being full of ideas for this place: giving it a “social use,” practicing agro-ecology and vermiculture, among others. “It is a unique experiment,” he says and one that also aims to be economically sustainable. He trusts that, in time, authorities will continue supporting the initiative.

Nevertheless, the rest of the parks have not had the same luck and have no use beyond the visual . . . behind bars. The monument erected in honor of Cuban doctor Carlos J. Finlay at Cuba and Amargura cannot be seen up close. There is also the Las Carolinas park, administered by the modern dance company Retazos, and open only for its interest in “some workshop for children and teens,” according to a custodian.

The list goes on. At Sol and Oficios, next to the Office of Cultural Heritage, an enormous green space surrounds a fountain as dry as a desert, that is their park. And at Acosta and Damas they built a pretty reminder of the Jewish community that lived there, just for the pedestrians to pass by because of having nowhere to rest without jumping the gate.

One of the best examples of this closure of public spaces is the fountain at Plaza Vieja in the heart of Havana within the city walls. The uninformed find the bars that surround the water to be strange. They do not know that this area has so many problems with the supply of the liquid which has had neighbors bringing buckets and tanks to it. A spectacle that reflects the real Cuba, which is not seen on postcards.

Across from the Central Train Station – another decadent icon of the city – a park offers anything except an invitation to relax. Old steam locomotives rust behind bars next to benches that will never be used again either.

This situation forms part of a vicious cycle that is completed with vandalism. The primary idea is that the parks remain closed so that the neighbors – who are not foreigners, but seemingly “uncivilized” Cubans – do no damage to them, while the lack of contact and “entrance prohibited” could be making it difficult to create respect for the urban environment or a sense of belonging.

So Nercy Perez, who works at the previously mentioned garden at Teniente Rey and Havana, would like the area schools to integrate themselves more in the projects she and her colleagues promote. “If children learn from an early age to take care of things, then later it will be easier.” The woman is of the opinion that “people do not have the culture” of caring for things. Indeed, she had to interrupt the conversation to scold a student who passed by and just grabbed one of her plants.

Other neighbors complain about the lack of public spaces. “The children have nowhere to play. They have to be in the street. The old people have nowhere to sit,” criticizes Joaquin from El Cristo neighborhood. The plaza that carries this latter name has been closed by metal barriers for a long time. Its interior does not look anything like a place where generations of Havanans scampered.

Also closed to the public, the Plaza del Cristo faces one of the many interminable repairs that can be seen in Old Havana, between crumbling buildings and dirty streets. What is obvious, unfortunately for those who long for a pretty city, is that not so many tourists pass through here.

“The only option for children is to go to the Inflatable Toys Park,” complains Norma, mother of two little ones. She concludes: “Of course, since that does provide money [from entrance fees], they don’t close it.”

Translated by MLK

The Gag Law: A Victim of the Rapprochement between Cuba and the US? / 14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez

The legislation that has endorsed flagrant human rights violations seems to have its days numbered.

14ymedio, VICTOR ARIEL GONZALEZ, Havana, 30 December 2014 – Following the custom of seeing the speck in the eye of another, the “gag law” that in recent days has caused a waved of protests in Spain has been criticized by Cuba’s official Cuban. The Prensa Latina news agency recently cited a Spanish activist, opponent of the Popular Party’s legal project, who predicted that the edict “will repress rights like that of free assembly” as well as freedom of expression.

Nevertheless, the menacing “Law of Citizen Security” which has raised so much commotion in that European country has a counterpart on this Caribbean island. The “Law No. 88 for protection of national independence and the Cuban economy” has been, since its approval in February 1999, our own gag law, and its description is identical to that offered by the aforementioned activist and quoted by Prensa Latina: “A way of creating fear and exerting media pressure to criminalize protests.”

But in Cuba, unlike in Spain, for more than half a century one simply could not protest, and fear was consolidated into terror. The Cuban “Gag Law” affects, among others, those who “collaborate in any way with radio or television stations, newspapers, magazines or other foreign media,” “disturb the public order” or “promote, organize or incite disturbances of the public order.” The sanctions range from three to 20 years in prison. continue reading

Nothing better characterizes Law No. 88 than its first article, which reads that its objective is “to criminalize and punish those actions designed to support, facilitate or collaborate with the objectives of the Helms-Burton law, the blockade and the economic war against our people.” Throughout the text are repeated ad nauseam the elements that turn the United States into an enemy that wants to see us crushed.

This was the law that sought to justify the mass incarcerations of the 2003 Black Spring. But now the legislation that has supported flagrant violations of human rights seems to have its days numbered.

With the end of the Cuba-US confrontation a document loses meaning that consecrates as “an unavoidable duty responding to the aggression whose object is the Cuban people” who desire to maintain their “independence and sovereignty.” For decades the regime has shielded itself behind this discourse to refuse to open itself to hearing its opponents or, at least, to not repressing them.

The recent statements that ended 53 years of Washington’s “hard” line towards Havana were the exorcism of the imperialist demon who threatened Cuban sovereignty, as the regime defines it. According to the law, which serves above all to imprison peaceful opponents, the actions of the US are designed to “break internal order, destabilize the country and liquidate the Socialist State and Cuban independence.” But Barack Obama himself, when he describes the American strategy as “failed” underscores official Cuban paranoia.

With the December 17 statements from the White House, the foundations of the “Gag Law” wobbled. This shows that its reach was as terrible as it was weak. In the next months we may be witnessing the definitive emptying of its contents, ever more hollow. What remains to be seen is if they withdraw the law, ease it or just replace it.

Translated by MLK

Tania Bruguera Under Arrest at Acosta Police Station in Diez de Octubre, Havana / 14ymedio

Tania Bruguera (photo from her blog)
Tania Bruguera (photo from her blog)

14ymedio, Havana, 30 december 2014 — Contacted by phone at her home, the director of 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, said that Tania Bruguera was under arrest at the Acosta Police Station in the Diez de Octubre municipality in Havana.

Reinaldo Escobar was released from the same station Tuesday night at 10:00 pm. Escobar affirmed that he saw Tania “wearing the gray uniform of a convict,” It is still unknown when Bruguera will be released.

The two police cars surrounding Yoani Sanchez’s building have been removed and the director of this digital daily is no longer under house arrest.

The 14ymedio reporter Victor Ariel Gonzalez is still being detained, in Guanabacoa. Still unknown are the whereabouts of the activists Antonio Rodiles, Ailer Gonzalez and Eliecer Avila, along with the photographer Claudio Fuentes and his partner, Eva Baquero.

Developing news.

UPDATE: Ailer Gonzalez has been released.

Several activists and Reinaldo Escobar, editor-in-chief of ’14ymedio’, arrested / 14ymedio

The police car in front of the apartment of Reinaldo Escobar and Yoani Sanchez. (14ymedio)
The police car in front of the apartment of Reinaldo Escobar and Yoani Sanchez. (14ymedio)

The director of this newspaper, Yoani Sánchez, is under house arrest

14ymedio, Havana, 30 December 2014 – Contacted by phone at her home, the director of 14ymedio, Yoani Sánchez, explained the circumstances of the arrest of her husband, Reinaldo Escobar, and of several other people this Tuesday in Havana. She is under house arrest. Patrol car No. 507 is stationed in front of the building where she lives, while four plainclothes offices are controlling the building entrances. continue reading

Reinaldo Escobar was arrested when he left the building where he lives in the company of the activist Eliécer Ávila, founder of the group “Somos Más” (We are More). Both were handcuffed and put in a patrol car waiting in front of the building in the Havana neighborhood of Neuvo Vedado. Reinaldo’s daughter, Luz, who was with her father, has not been arrested, but a State Security agency told her, “We are not going to let you leave.” The same official visited Luz Escobar’s home yesterday to warn her not to go near the Plaza of the Revolution today, where the artist Tania Bruguera has scheduled a performance titled “Tatlin’s Whisper #6” for 3:00 in the afternoon, to demand freedom of expression for Cuban’s citizens.

Also arrested were photographer Claudio Fuentes and his companion Eva, while the activists Antonio Rodiles and Ailer González were not answering the phone. Social networks also inform us of the arrests of José Díaz Silva, Raúl Borges, Lady in White Lourdes Esquivel, and of the 14ymedio reporter Víctor Ariel González.

Members of the #YOTAMBIENEXIJO [I also demand] platform issued a press release denouncing their inability to contact Bruguera. The organization explained that the artist’s telephone number is blocked and expressed their fear, given the arrests of the leaders of civic organizations currently underway.