Basic Means and Human Rights / Miriam Celaya

Perogrullo is right in that we Cubans are basic means for the government; we are used or ignored, according to how useful we may turn out. As if this alone were not enough, we have an “inventory number” inscribed on our identity card which we are required to carry around, and, more important even than your face or name, is that pretty long number including your birth date, followed by another sequence indicating even your gender. I, for example, am not Miriam, but 59100900595. The identity card in question also has one’s fingerprints. Just by looking at that small card encased in plastic, the message is loud and clear: “I’m watching you”, which, of course, is one of its main purposes.

While it’s true that in other parts of the world people tend to have a document that identifies them, from a driver’s license to a dry cleaners card, no written gadget replaces the human person as in Cuba. Unless we are talking about a criminal, who, nevertheless, also has his rights. And this is the word around this issue: rights. Because in these last few days the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was celebrated, and the press in my (my?) country, with the touching modesty that they have us so accustomed to, once again harped on the extraordinary achievements on such rights that the revolution has introduced for us – the native basic means — and for tens of thousands of people around the entire world. They harp, above all, on health issues.

Just my bad luck that around that same time I had visited an old relative at the Altos clinic at the Calixto Gracía Hospital, and I was able to evidence, alive and directly [in the flesh], as we say in Cuba, the conditions in which basic means are warehoused in such as a place. A ward where, in unabashed promiscuity, patients of both sexes share their stay, even the same cubicle, so that if they need to use a bedpan or a urinal, or if a patient (yes, you have to be patient) has to be catheterized, or if someone who is not ambulatory has to be given a sponge bath, it has to be done in the presence of others, because the ward does not even have devices that allow curtains to be drawn discretely to isolate patients from each other when it is necessary or desirable. The highest aspiration of the poor flesh and bone pieces of furniture, “cared for” in this manner, is for the roommate and his visitors, and even the patient’s own visitors, to discretely look away while they the patient uses the bed pan, while he gets washed, or simply while the doctors’ or the nurses’ treatment requires that their bodies be exposed.

It is a very bleak spectacle indeed. It is overwhelming to just think that a human being might stumble into a situation in which dignity and respect are stepped on like this and, to top it all off, that they have to be grateful that “at least we have free and guaranteed medical attention”.

In the midst of all this, I am wondering if the embargo is responsible for an individual who is ill to be subjected to expose his intimacies and his miseries in such as crude manner. I wonder if, at any time, someone had the rare privilege of sharing his in-patient cubicle with any of our olive-green dinosaurs or with any other member of the upper caste, or if any one of the executives or other foreign visitors that are always bragging about the Cuban health system has ever seen these hospital wards, or if they would like to be cared for with these “attentions”. I wonder, above all, how we can cure someone while at the same time lacerating his sense of personal dignity. Definitively, this December 10th I have discovered another one of the dirty corners of Castro-style Human Rights.

Translated by Norma Whiting

December 14, 2010

Alcoholism, an Escape from Reality / Laritza Diversent

It is the third night that Roger Martinez, a young man of 35, comes home drunk. His wife cannot handle this situation any longer. She had to ask her neighbor for two eggs to accompany the white rice she made for her children’s dinner. Meanwhile, she wonders how her husband manages to get money to intoxicate himself nearly every single day.

Daily, Roger goes out to search for a job, but a self-employed job. He’ll clean a backyard, he’ll do some construction in certain homes, etc. He does not have a specific occupation, but he does anything in order to live day to day. For him, working in the street means more income than he would make with a monthly salary. All in all, however, it is still not enough to get by.

Before, when he would lay his head on his pillow, he would think of the different ways he could resolve the economic difficulties that awaited him the following day. He had to figure out a way to pay for all the electrical appliances given to him during the “Energy Revolution,” to continue supporting his children, to get food, to repair the house, etc.

Now, his situation has only worsened. To work for himself and at his own risk he needs a government license. The Tax Administration Office of his municipality has required him the guarantee to be a grocer, dependent of the centers which deliver the subsidy quota, that way he will be accredited that he is not a “debtor of the nation.” On the contrary, they will not let him operate as a self-employed citizen.

Martinez now finds himself in a dilemma — in order to work legally, he has to settle his debts with the State. The problem lies in the fact that he does not know how he will get more than 10 thousand pesos to pay for all the appliances given to him by the benevolent Battle of Ideas. He can barely even guarantee food for his children.

He has no other option but to work illegally and to incur one of the legal violations that come along with self-employment. Infringement is punished by a fine of 1,200 pesos, and that’s just for taking part in activities that are “legally authorized” without presenting the proper documentation which certifies him as a self-employed worker.

Roger wonders where he will get the money from if this happens. His problems do not diminish, instead they grow. The only solution for the time being is to not think. Either way, the only alternative to survive is to run the risk and work “on the left”*, as they say out on the streets.

His day starts at 6 AM in the bar at the corner of the street. At that time, he gulps down his first drink of the day. He ends up stumbling and talking to himself on the way back home. Drinking alcoholic beverages has become his main attraction, as a way to not face his frustrations and weakness. An escape from the harsh reality, a remedy to not have to think.

Translated by Raul G.

A Christmas Spent in Freedom / Pablo Pacheco

After eight long years, my family can once again smile during Christmas. The hate and intolerance of the regime in Havana kept 75 Cuban families from being able to celebrate Christmas together.

A couple of friends invited me to spend Christmas Eve with them in the town of Marbella. As a result, a well-nourished group of Cubans, some Spaniards, and Hanna, a native of Lebanon who cooks exquisitely, all shared this holiday, which is the day that all Christians await, with my family.

Thanks to Odalys, Borredo, Lola, Dupon, and Miguel, along with other relatives and friends, I felt as if I was at home. My only son managed to display a smile on his lips which I had not seen occur for quite some time now. Oleivys and I danced the night away to Caribbean rhythms- something I missed very much and that 6 months ago I thought would be impossible to repeat, thanks to the 20 year sentence I was serving.

During these days of universal festivities I have received displays of warmth and love from all sorts of places. I have received Christmas cards, e-mails, and telephone calls. I truly appreciate all these things with all of my heart. They really reach me deep inside and help me to continue.

But I cannot deny, however, that my happiness is not complete, for 11 of my brothers in cause remain behind the bars. 11 families were not able to sing, laugh, or dance, just because those who are in power exercise a brutal intolerance.

One day, my country will once again be able to see the light which brightens our paths to freedom. And when that day comes, we will all celebrate Christmas together. And on that day, absolutely no one will languish away in prison just for their thoughts. That day is near, and just like the famous singer says, “All the world is waiting for it”.

Translated by Raul G.

December 30, 2010

Note: Pablo Pacheco formerly blogged in “Voices Behind the Bars” when he was a political prisoner in Cuba. He has now been released and forcibly exiled to Spain, and has a new blog, “Cuban Voices from Exile.” We will continue to post him here, for a time, until his faithful readers have found their way to his new home.

Polemical Anthology / Luis Felipe Rojas

My wife, Exilda, gave me this post from her collection of unpublished articles to celebrate the 1 year anniversary of my blog.

I have just finished savoring pleasure and, at the same time, bitterness upon witnessing the presentation of the series, “Anthology of Paths”. This time, the theme was “Race and Racism”. It’s a compilation put together by the editors of the magazine known as ‘Caminos’ (Paths) and dedicated to the Martin Luther King Jr Center. This was prepared with the intent of trying to understand the current racial problem in Cuba — that trend which we do not know when it will vanish.

The anthology has appeared in Cuba at the same time that the century-long anniversary celebration of the Independent Party of Color, founded by Evaristo Estenoz and Pedro Ivonet during the first decade of XX century was going underway. In this deficient anthology I have found a text which I have found to be tendentious, and I would like to point out some issues.

In the essay, “Racial Identity of People without History” by Yesenia Selier and Penelope Hernandez, it is stated that we, whether we are blacks or mestizos from Cuba, have a negative and conflicted view about ourselves. Historically, according to the work, we have always been marginalized and forgotten, but “thanks to the Revolution of 1959” we managed to integrate socially and politically.

In the same vein, a center such as the Martin Luther King one is in charge of promoting the messianic pro-Castro program in the Cuban nation, which states that, supposedly, Fidel Castro and his bearded men came down from the Sierra Maestra mountains to save us from the ignominy of racism. This supports that plan and image which theorists of tropical socialism subdue for the sake of posterity and to seek other followers.

From my own personal experience, I can testify that my grandparents, Oscar and Iris, were immigrants from Antigua-Barbuda and Jamaica, respectively. She was a mulata and he was a black man, and both were searching for fortune and prosperity. They found love, and they made a family composed of 5 sons, and they also helped to establish this small town lost somewhere in the Eastern Cuban geography — San German.

Their love of work, their being of a race with patterns of dress, dance, and other unique ways of behaving, made them respectable people. In addition, they also always respected others, despite how Cuban society functioned at the time. As their descendants, we learned that being black was not a burden or an error, but that it is a source of pride. Being black means that you have rhythm when you walk or make gestures, that you have a particular way of cooking foods, and that you have a distinct way of representing the history of your predecessors — those who lived through humanity’s worst crime, which was slavery. But this does not make us better than anyone else, but it does make us different. And as a black woman in the XXI century, I have accepted this responsibility with much dignity.

The references used by some critics of racism in current times sometimes places them in the same group as that of the most frantic racists.

Anthologies such as the one made by the Caminos Editorial, which respond to the good relations between Christianity and the Latin-American left with the Cuban state are also a form of induced false memory. The phenomenon of racial integration should not be passed through the sieve of false celebrations or underpinnings of past errors.

The essence of the “black problem” in Cuba will be to shed light on all the torpor, while being able to count on the support of all so that we can start referring to both things as one: nation and race.

Translated by Raul G.

December 30, 2010

Commandment / Regina Coyula

Nobody’s getting upset, but my blog is already a year old and since I opened it I have an extensive list of links that have only grown. As I have only minimal internet access, I haven’t had the opportunity to visit those sites. And oh, surprise, many with more technological capabilities break the commandment to link to me as I link to you. That is the reason they no longer appear on my blogroll.

Translated by: JT

December 31 2010

Costly Dreams / Laritza Diversent

José, with his 35 years, dreams of driving a convertible silver Audi. His eyes are open, it was not difficult for him to come back to reality when his fan stopped due to a blackout. The heat of the night activates his brain. He thought of a solution for his existential problems.

He wanted to prosper economically, but was convinced that anything he thought up would carry him over the line to illegality, and with it, the possibility of going to prison. “If I were Mexican, I’d risk my life crossing the border,” he said to himself. But he was in Cuba, a country that strictly regulates departures from the country.

He devised a plan to cross the 90 miles of sea that separated him from his American dream. Building a rustic vessel that he generously called a boat. He invited his two best friends to join in his enterprise. Each looked for two iron tanks (55 gallons), the kind that people commonly use to store their water reserves.

They began their work in the living room of his house. First they sealed the containers with no more than 20 liters of water inside. Then, they joined them together with angle brackets leaving space between them to put inflatable truck tires. They only lacked the installation of the keel to break the waves, when they heard a knock at the door.

They jumped out of their skin when they saw the chief of the sector, accompanied by two policemen in a patrol car. First they said that neighbors had complained about the noise of hammers and engines, and then that they had information that they were building a boat to leave the country.

They came with a search warrant which they executed on the spot. They seized what didn’t look much like a boat, and took them as detainees to the police station. To their astonishment they released them five hours later, without any penalty.

They were naive, because 15 days later they received a decision from the Harbor Master imposing a fine of 3,000 pesos in national currency, for building a boat without permission.

The infraction, described as very serious, is characterized in Decree Law 194 of June 19, 1999, “Of the infractions with regard to the possession and operation of vessels in the country,” supplemented by Resolution No. 2 of December 7, 1999 of the Ministry of the Interior which establishes procedures for its implementation.

The rule issued by the Council of State, considers 14 offenses and classifies them as minor, serious and very serious, punishable by fines ranging from 500 pesos to 10,000 pesos, including the possibility of subsidiary punishment of forfeiture. The Harbor Master is authorized to implement the sanctions.

José added to his already overwhelming economic problems a fine that exceeds what he could legally earn in a year. They say it costs nothing to dream, but trying to realize a dream can be very expensive.

Translated by Rick Schwag and Ivana Recmanova

December 25 2010

In a Coach, Down a Dark Alley / Ernesto Morales Licea

His face is a catalog of discouragement. Sitting with his elbows on his knees, his horse’s reins in his hands, he seems to me like a pillar of salt from another time. With several days growth of beard, and a yellowish coat he must have exhumed from a closet in these days of winter.

“Would you give me a second, please? I’m a journalist and would like to ask you a few questions.”

From his seat, over my head, he looks at me with discouragement. He doesn’t agree, nor refuse. He’s just there.

“I would like to ask you about the strike you people held a week ago,” I said, with fear that once again I would receive the same evasive answers as on my previous two attempts: a tattooed young man told me, next to his horse, “No brother, I wasn’t here that day”, and drifted away in a hurry; and a chunky old man, wearing a palm frond hat, answered in a more sincere way, “Look, I don’t want to get into more trouble, go ask someone else”.

A little over a week earlier the coachmen from my traditional Bayamo had undertaken an unthinkable action: two days of absolute strike. A strike in a country without strikes, a country with the only constitution in the planet that does not recognize such a right for its laborers.

The unusual news spread across the whole island: the news exclusive had made it all the way to my hospital bed in Havana through a young nurse who took it with natural cheerfulness, “Bayamian, the coachmen of your town are on strike. Let’s see if you people light the city on fire again.”

“I would like to know the causes of this strike, in essence, what were you demanding?” I asked him, vaguely hopeful before his silence, a silence that, at least, didn’t push me away from there as his coworkers had done, their voices paralyzed by fear; I could have been a State Security agent, an informant, a plainclothes cop.

He takes his time, chews his cigar and speaks without looking at me, as if something in the distance really caught his attention.

“Man, the only thing we were asking for was for them to leave us barely enough money to eat. That’s all. For them not to abuse us anymore.”

His words, said in the same peevish tone, thrill me. I wasn’t expecting this access to the truth.

“Why the abuse, what has changed?” I ask.

“The amount of money we have to pay the State now, in order for them to let us work. The taxes and payments due to thousands of different made up things they have recently imposed on us, just because.”

What is officially handled with the carefully chosen terms such as “Tax Adjustment,” is summed up for this man and for millions of other Cubans, as something very simple: the rates imposed by the Ministry of Prices and Finance for the practice of self-employment, in the majority of the cases, are simply exorbitant. It’s unsustainable.

Long before this forty-eight hour strike coming from a very humble sector, I had received news about the tax outrage. I heard testimonies from a neighborhood barber who, after twenty-six years of practice, was being forced to give up his work permit because the two-hundred pesos that the State fixed as his monthly share had become astronomical. In the last month, he had had to sell a couple of his possessions in order to make up the sum.

“How much were you paying before, and how much are you paying now? ” I proceed with my interview, afraid that the six people who would fill up his carriage would appear and my brief investigation would be cut short.

“Before, the monthly permit fee was 130 pesos. Now, they brought it up to 150 pesos, plus 87.50 pesos for Social Security, plus 10 percent of our daily earnings, for using this place to park our carriages.”

I tried to rapidly calculate the figure we were talking about, and asked him for daily numbers; quickly adding it up, we agreed on an approximate total for his monthly taxes: around 500 pesos.

The carriages in Bayamo have, for some time, left off being traditional museum and classic colony pieces, to become a solution to the severe urban transportation problems.

Every morning, a legion of workers paid 1 Cuban peso and traveled on them to hospitals, schools, grocery stores. Waiting for the city buses had become, for many, an unbearable chimera, alleviated only by these mobile artifacts, an unequivocal symbol of the villa founded in 1513 by the vicious Spaniard Diego Velazquez.

And all of a sudden, on an ordinary morning, the daily peso for the carrier doubled and in some cases, it tripled; the coachmen had just raised the prices of their fares, and the laborers’ salaries remained the same: 300 pesos, average, a month. The math was stressful for those who had to travel on them daily.

“The thing started from problems with the people, look,” he tells me, and now, for the first time I think he’s engaging in our conversation. “We had more discussions than trips. Many didn’t want to pay us, they would call us thieves. And the only thing we could say was, ‘Go complain to the authorities! We don’t want to raise prices, but they’re forcing us to!’ We were like that for almost a month. Until we had to get together and present the problems. And a moment came where we couldn’t take it anymore, young man, and we had to stop.”

His words spill out as he vents. They carry the suppressed anger, vibrant, of someone who can’t resign himself to it all.

The day they reported they wouldn’t work anymore, the State forced private trucks and buses, with other routes, to cover their trips. Not one person from the union was able to intervene, not a voice from those other transportation modes was allowed to protest: the master spoke, you could only obey.

On the second day, they gathered them at the headquarters of the provincial Government, bearing a peculiar and fragmented manual of intelligence. Never all together. They relied on the ancient maxim, “Divide and conquer.”

They pressured them in small groups. Under the guise of more clearly explaining the mechanisms they removed the seeds of disagreement with sophisticated threats: if they persisted on keeping their reactionary position they would forever lose their license.s They would no longer be able to work with their animals, which by the way, had cost them several thousands.

“Imagine for yourself if the people had not been intimidated,” he makes a gesture of annoyance, drowsing in his seat again at the level of my forehead. “We all have children here, families. We all have to kill the hunger, and this is the about the only thing we know. There are many who can’t even recover their initial investment, you understand? Who would continue after that?”

I could imagine the rest of the story, though the man didn’t tell me. I assumed from the fear, the hesitant speech, the refusals I’d received previously: it was the panic of being branded counterrevolutionaries. The investigations by the intelligence services, the interrogations to determine the leaders of the discontent; they were, in those days, taking over the area with their inexhaustible presence, the repressors with kid gloves from State Security. In Cuba they cannot allow the sowing of public unrest.

This is, in effect, the chronicle of an announced conflict: the grandiose plan to revive the Cuban economy not only contemplates the layoffs of hundreds of thousands; not only does it contemplate permits to exercise ridiculous professions — button-coverer, scissors grinder — to make a personal livelihood; but it includes, in addition, a Cyclopean increase in taxes for all private businesses, although the fundamental ingredient, money, continues to be absent from the family horizon.

The immediate consequence? Thousands of self-employed workers thinking, with anger and helplessness, about giving up the work that in the last years had allowed them to feed themselves, badly. Offering a license placed at an impossible height. Infinite shame should be the only name of this congress.

“Thanks very much for your time,” I say, by way of goodbye, when I see that our fleeting interview is ending. “And have a good day.”

I turned and before taking off I heard his voice again, and I paused for another second, looking again at his face without dreams or hopes.

“Don’t mention my name in what you write, boy,” he says, and I can barely suppress my pain, furious frustration, at hearing this plea from an adult man, independent, whom the system has completely neutralized with fear. “The only thing they haven’t done to me is seize the coach for saying things I shouldn’t.”

I make a gesture with my hand: don’t worry about it, it won’t be me who will threaten his poor living for his family.

I return to my personal bubble, suffering in silence for a hostile reality, that every day is more incompatible with the happiness of Cubans; a reality that from my earliest awareness has only threatened to worsen, bringing worse news, worse years, more acute shortages. Returning to my laboratory of ideas I can’t stop thinking about a phrase of the poet Lezama Lima who asked, with biting bitterness, how can we find out way out of this dark alley.

Translated by Angelica Betancourt

December 15, 2010

CIVIC MANIFESTO TO CUBAN COMMUNISTS / Dimas Castellanos, Eugenio Leal, Miriam Celaya

The informal announcement of the VI Congress of the PCC, to be held in April, 2011, has been accompanied by the publication of the Draft Guidelines which summarize the topics to be covered at the most important meeting of the only party in Cuba. This document contains some positive aspects, especially those showing a clear understanding of the deep structural crisis that the country is experiencing and others, showing the direction the proposed solutions are headed. But its limitations, its unilateral and sectarian character, and the unjustifiable omission of matters of dire importance to the present and the future of the nation, have motivated us to comment on basic elements not considered by the top leadership of the PCC, without the inclusion of which it won’t be possible to make strides of any depth or speed.

Some of these fundamentals are:

* The project is a straitjacket made without consultation, designed to truncate debate about issues that affect all Cubans and cover all spheres of national life. It is the outline of an agenda that, in the absence of essential rights and freedoms of democracy, rules out the participation of citizens in its proposals.

* It is inconceivable for a political party to avoid political debate and at the same time to try to keep the economy subject to ideology, a method that has already demonstrated its unviability for over half a century.

* The current situation clearly reflects two possibilities: either the Cuban model is unachievable, or the government has failed in its application. Therefore, essential self-criticism must be imposed wherever failure of the model that the government has followed to date is officially recognized, and the governing body’s responsibility in its implementation.

* If the model failed, it is not wise to update it, but to change it, which would also imply a referendum to change the players.

* The measures the government has been proposing in recent years in order to reverse the critical national socio-economic plight are transitory, outdated and clearly inadequate, because they suffer from a lack of realism. The Cuban crisis will not be reversed as long as the effect that the applied conceptions regarding property issues have had on the failure of the model are not recognized, and until they are fundamentally changed. This should be coupled with the necessary inclusion of nationals in the proposed investment processes. Maintaining the system of excluding Cubans — far from enhancing productivity and economic progress — establishes an obstacle to productive development.

* Any attempt to improve the situation in Cuba goes through the full implementation of human rights in its indivisible nature, whose Covenants, signed in February of 2008, have not yet been ratified by the Government. The consummation of this achievement not only implies the unconditional release of all political prisoners, but in-depth legal modifications that tolerate the legalization of political dissent.

* We have already exceeded the time limit for the implementation of partial reforms. No reform in Cuba can be confined to the domestic economy sphere, since the crisis spans the whole system. It requires, therefore, proposals of a systemic nature that cannot derive exclusively from the ruling party that has not even proposed a new program to replace the previous one — fruit of the Third Congress of 1986 — failed and forgotten.

* Cuba is urged to overcome the philosophy of survival. People aspire to live and prosper, not to resist. Cubans have a right to prosper from the proceeds of their efforts. A ban on the demonization of prosperity must be imposed.

* Any new model that is proposed should emphatically proclaim the end of the so-called Special Period and the beginning of a period of normality, based on agreed-upon principles which can be relied on, as part of a new social pact.

* The Cuban government has implicitly acknowledged that the country is economically dependent on foreign capital. However, external assistance should only be subject to compliance with internationally recognized principles with respect to rights, and full people-participation, which, up to now, Cubans lack. Investors may not become rich as a result of the absence of rights in Cuba. Paradoxically, the violation of these principles obliterates the intentions to establish social justice stemming from the socialist system.

* The updated model proposed by the Government is not “a model for man” but calls, instead for “Man for a model.” Man is subordinated to the economic and ideological interests of the ruling party. By keeping the sacrificial status of individuals in this system it is clear that this is not a humanistic model.

* Economic advances are not possible if they are separate from exchange and free access to information. The government monopoly on information networks denies the potential of a people who achieved high levels of education and constitutes a violation of their rights.

* The absence of alternation, nepotism, and the lack of limits on the terms in public office become a brake on development. The responsibility in the face of failures, linked to the accumulation of interests on the part of a group established in power in perpetuity, also tends to perpetuate the Cuban crisis and makes the collapse of the system irreversible. Reality demands a reform in this plane so that the existence of other policy options will force the government to successfully fulfill its mission at the head of the nation’s destiny.

This manifesto is signed on December 1st, 2010 by:

Dimas Castellanos

Miriam Celaya

Reinaldo Escobar

Rogelio Fabio Hurtado

Eugenio Leal

Rafael León

Rosa María Rodríguez

Wilfredo Vallín

The Pork’s Leg / Rebeca Monzo

Cristina was all busy preparing the leg of pork she had struggled for, after putting up with an excruciating line. She jealously guarded a secret family recipe.

Christmas Eve arrived and Cristina presented the dish that she was so proud of, together with the usual black beans and white rice. Everyone loved the roast. “My friend, please tell me what your secret is,” and “Why do you cut off the stump from the leg? Does it have anything to do with the recipe?”

“Look, I’m not going to share the recipe, but don’t take it personally, but about the little stump, the truth is that I don’t know why it is done that way, my mother did it like that and she says that’s how my grandmother did it. Better we should ask her.”

Days later when they went to grandma’s house, the famous little leg and its amputation came up in the conversation.

Faced with the unusual question, the grandmother, who was very old already but who has perfect memory, responded with an angelic smile and declared, “My girl, there is no mystery here! What happened was that the oven in my kitchen was very small so we had to cut the leg so it would fit. What I don’t understand is why you and your mom still do the same, even though you have larger ovens!”

Translated by Rick Schwag

December 25, 2010

Cuba Also Has Anti-immigrant Laws / Laritza Diversent

Not infrequently, the Cuban government has spoken out against anti-immigrant laws in developed countries. However, nobody could imagine that there are legal regulations on the island similar to SB 1070, which was passed by U.S. state of Arizona on April 23 and which authorizes state police to arrest people suspected of being an illegal immigrant.

In 2008 the National Assembly expressed its rejection of the Return Directive approved by the European Parliament, calling it a blatant and shameful violation of human rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and various international regulations. However, it lets the government punish a citizen who stays in the nation’s capital without permission.

The only difference between the U.S. state and Cuba is that, the former adopted a single legal standard, and on the island there are several: Decree 217 “Internal Immigration Regulations for Havana” of 1997, Decree No. 248, “System of Identification and Registration of Voters” and its rules, and Resolution No. 6 / 07 of the Interior Ministry, both from 2007.

The last two make it illegal for a citizen to live in a new home for more than 30 days without submitting a change of address and his entry in the Registry of Addresses. In addition they require that Cubans over the age of 16 must carry and show identification to the authorities and their agents, whenever requested.

Since 1971, the Cuban government controls the movement of citizens within the national territory, through the Population Registry and Registry of Addresses. These institutions are run by the Ministry of the Interior, a State body responsible for controlling the country’s internal and external migration, complemented by the record books kept by the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution.

For its part, Decree 217 prevents people from other provinces from residing in Havana, the capital of the country, without prior government authorization.

The regulation issued by the Executive Committee of the Council of Ministers establishes a system of personal offenses punishable by fines ranging from 200 pesos to 1000 pesos in national currency, for those who violate its provisions. In every case it requires the offenders to return immediately to their place of origin

The application of this provision also violates personal freedom because the law enforcement agencies are authorized to detain, arrest and deport to their places of origin, people suspected of being an illegal in the capital. However, no criminal regulation criminalizes the stay in the capital as a crime.

There is no doubt about the hypocritical attitude of a government that defines itself as a defender of human rights and criticizes the European Union and the United States for their anti-immigrant policies, when it severely restricts its own nationals from freedom of movement within the island.

Translated by Rick Schwag

December 27, 2010

Bitter Candy / Miriam Celaya

Orlando Luís photograph

Old Rubén is over 80 years old, but he is one of those whose “suckling pigs will not die in his belly,” so, since he retired more than a decade ago, he has always sought ways to round out his meager pension and increase his income. So old and already infirm, he must spend a fortune on his meds every month, but he won’t complain or veg out in a rocking chair, so every day around noon and in the afternoon he leaves his house and walks toward some school’s entrance so he can sell candy.

Rubén has thus found a way to stay active and, at the same time, make some extra money, though a few times he has had to run away as fast as his tired legs will allow because the police harasses all “illegal activity”, even the small escapade of an old man struggling to survive this shipwreck. At times, they have caught Rubén and he has lost his profits and his “merchandise”; on more than one occasion they have “warned him” that if he continues the activity, they will apply “other stronger measures”, but it would not be honest of me to deny that on several occasions the agents have let him go with his candy and his few little pesos… “Old man, behave yourself and stay put at home!” “I don’t want to see you with candy or anything, OK?” But, after a few days, when the wallet starts to wane, Rubén once again fetches the candy and peers cautiously around the school. One has to make a living!

However, these days Rubén has received bad news. Lalo, his candy supplier, as old and worn as Rubén, has decided to submit the license application to manufacture the goodies. Police and inspectors will have declared war on him, and he feels a constant watch on his home, making it difficult to work; sugar is difficult to obtain, and has greatly increased in price… He already has a tired heart and is not up to these sudden shocks. The problem is that we now Lalo will have to do twice the work: cook up the candy and go out and sell them, because – according to the “new reforms” implemented by General Raúl (a little old man who doesn’t have to sell candy) — if Lalo contracted with Rubén and other sellers of his products, he would have to pay social security taxes for each “employee,” which would reduce to a minimum his own profits and make his efforts completely inoperative.

Now Rubén is scheming to see what new market to explore. He might accept the proposal of a numbers bookie in his neighborhood and may become one of his runners. Rubén has always been good with numbers, knows thousands of tricks, and the old man is very lucid. On the other hand, he has the air of a semi-orphan which could serve to dispel the suspicions of distrustful neighbors. He would have preferred not to get into this mess, but he knows that he “cannot stop” because his legs feel more awkward with every passing day; the day may come when he is confined to a wheel chair, and “by then, I must have saved my pennies.” Besides – and this is what I admire most in Rubén — “One has to make a living!!”

Translated by Norma Whiting

December 10, 2010

About Dining Rooms and Diners / Miriam Celaya

Luis Orlando photo

Several days ago, I was reading some works published on a site that switches between the informal and the official. Contrary to what many may believe, it is interesting to meet views opposing to one’s own, especially if they provide elements that force us to tune-up the arguments, or – as in this case – when it deals with personal testimony that allows us to face facts that, no matter how you look at them, affects many, independent of their individual political preferences or ideology.

I do not intend to hash out an article, but to comment on one of the topics to be addressed: the elimination of workplace lunchrooms as a way to alleviate the extreme “subsidies” hanging over this indulgent father they call the State. The “measure” was announced loudly over a year ago in the national media and was implemented experimentally in several work places, whose workers would now receive the sum of 15 pesos (national currency) in place of each lunch. Many of these workers received the news of the end of their mess halls with real pleasure, and with good reason: those who worked all 24 workdays of each month would receive a total of 360 pesos under this model, in addition to their salary. In some cases, taking into consideration that the amount was the same for all workers regardless of salary scales or complexity and responsibility of their positions, lower-income employees would have a substantial increase in income over their own salaries. It goes without saying that the workers who were not chosen for the experiment hopefully and anxiously awaited the measure to be extended to everyone in the work centers.

With the enthusiastic immediacy that characterizes any revolutionary initiative in this country, the experiment began with the purpose of verifying the results in order to extend the measure to all workplaces. However, though the matter has not been mentioned again, the lunchrooms have gradually been disappearing from countless workers centers without workers getting any compensation in return, since they were not among the elected at the start of the great experiment. The ones who were excluded, therefore, do not have lunchrooms or the benefit of the redeeming 15 pesos, though compliance with the rigorous 8-hour workday established by law is maintained. It must be noted, by way of parenthesis, that these laws also state that a 9-hour shift without a lunch break cannot be fulfilled, so – with their wicked skill — management of each work center has been careful to maintain an hour of recess intended for workers’ lunch breaks, when they must find a way of eating, be it by reducing their meager incomes to buy whatever “street” food seems cheapest (therefore devoid of any quality) or by eroding their no less flagging household food stocks, with all the inconveniences that entails. By the way, in spite of the problems it causes, I don’t have any information that the slightest workers strike has taken place… nor will it ever. You can take that to the bank.

Beyond the small gastronomic and financial tragedy, however, isn’t it truly cynical that the government’s experiment decided to allocate 15 pesos to each worker to buy his own lunch? As I see it, if the officials themselves conceived that that amount was essential for an individual to obtain a simple lunch; if, in addition, it is well-known that a median Cuban income is approximately 300 pesos, isn’t it tantamount to official recognition that an individual’s income in Cuba is barely enough to guarantee one meal a day per person? This is, from my view, the crux of the problem. The drama lies not, as seems to be projected in the opinion of some who are affected, whether or not they are granted 15 pesos for each lunch or whether they maintain a trough (not “lunchroom”) which guarantees a miserable and generally bad food ration in their workplace at a nominal price. The real tragedies are that the salary earned after a month’s work is not even enough to satisfy the most basic feeding of an individual, let alone of a whole family; that the State Chiefs — aware of this — should wash their hands of the matter and that the ever-victims should continue to suffer in silence the scorn and arrogance of these XXI century slave drivers.

Translated by Norma Whiting

December 7, 2010

Estrada Palma and the Re-election / Dimas Castellanos

estrada-palmaThe current state of Cuba confirms the impossibility of social progress without civic participation of citizens. The structural crisis in which we are immersed and the obstacles to overcome it, are closely related to the absence of popular participation as a dependent of history. A reality exacerbated by the fact that our country, in terms of freedoms, has receded to the point where it was in 1878. Therefore, changes in the economy are as unavoidable as changes in human rights to promote civic participation from civil society in the decisions of the nation.

The importance of the political — the scope of social reality referred to the problems of power — is that it provides a vehicle to move from the desired to the feasible and from the feasible to reality, an area that implies the State as much as society. The attempts towards progress that ignore this truth, as has happened so far, are illusory.

The relationship between what is happening right now in our country with the public reappearance of the ex-chief of the Cuban State — phenomenon which is unsustainable in the short-term for the ungovernability that it generates — has as a common denominator with previous eras of Cuba the absence of the Cuban as a historical subject. To demonstrate that continuity, I will take this opportunity to look at the first attempt in Cuba of a presidential re-election bid.

The 1901 Constitution, in Article 96, referring to the duration of the presidential term, said that the office will last four years, and no one may be president in three consecutive terms. Therefore the conflict over the re-election bid in 1906 is not in the illegality, but in something else.

Tomás Estrada Palma (1835-1908), joined the Ten Years War from the beginning, where he received the rank of General. In the Government of the Republic in Arms he served as Secretary of War, of Foreign Affairs and President. In 1877 he was taken prisoner and released after the Zanjón Peace. He emigrated to the United States, where he founded a school for Latin Americans. In 1895 he was appointed minister plenipotentiary of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Cuba in the U.S. and was the center of the Revolutionary Council in New York. In 1901 he was elected President of the Republic of Cuba.

Estrada Palma concentrated in an important enterprise, the austerity in the management of public assets. However, while he considered that the people had no training for living in freedom, he did not endeavor to strengthen the spaces and institutions to achieve it. That decision, conscious or not, is a manifestation of Messianism, a pious hope in the ability of an earthly being to lead a people to salvation. In the absence of the general public, his administration was limited to a political elite devoid of civic culture. For example, the enactment of laws became very difficult because for approval it required the presence of two-thirds of the congressmen, whose attendance, since it was not mandatory, was exploited by political parties (Liberal and Moderate) to hinder the work of legislation in their struggle for dominance in Congress. In this situation, President Estrada Palma, who had refused to join any of the existing parties, decided to join the Moderate Party, to try, together with the work of the Executive Branch, to obtain a quorum and to enact laws and necessary measures.

With regards to the theme of re-election, Estrada Palma created the War Cabinet to guarantee victory and get a majority in the Senate and the House; he pushed it to use all governmental force, including the use of violence and fraud against the Liberal Party, which responded with the abstention, and consistent with our culture of intransigence and machete, took up arms. A process that caused heavy damage and loss of life before and during the conflict, among them the killing of Colonel Enrique Villuendas in Cienfuegos and General Quintin Banderas in Havana, whom I shall address in my next article.

The rebels, in a manifesto dated September 1, 1906, proposed, inter alia, the cessation of hostilities, the restoration of peace, freedom for those detained or prosecuted for activities related to elections and declaring vacant the positions of president and vice president of the republic, provincial governor and provincial council, covered in the last election period. Estrada Palma for his part required them to lay down their weapons first and then talk. The intransigence of the parties and accordingly the failure of the mediation of a group of veterans, among whom were the generals Bartolome Maso, Mario García Menocal and Cebreco Augustine, who rose to confirm the office of president and cancel the rest of the elected offices.

The intransigence led to the outcome. Between 8 and 12 September, Estrada Palma suspended the guarantee, requested the sending of warships and intervention; a request that the U.S. president himself considered inappropriate. According to Hortensia Pichardo, Theodore Roosevelt exhausted all available means to avoid that step. Among these the media quoted his letter to Gonzalo de Quesada, 14 September 1906 and his telegram to Estrada Palma, on the 25th of the same month. In the first, Roosevelt reveals, among other arguments, that:

“Our intervention in Cuban affairs will be realized only if it is shown that Cuba has fallen into the habit of insurrection and lacks the necessary control over herself to realize peaceful self-government, and so that its rival factions have plunged into anarchy.”

In a letter to his friend Teodoro Pérez Tamayo, dated October 10, 1906, Estrada Palma argues that the settlement through the pact with the rebels was the worst thing that could have been thought of, as the secondary problems that would arise later — so many and so difficult to solve — weakening, of not losing, the moral force of legitimate power and no authority other than the settlement of disputes, which I repeat would be so many and so difficult, these problems, which would lead to the country being kept for many months amid constant agitation, as pernicious as the effects of the war itself. So, he says, he decided to irrevocably resign the Presidency, to completely abandon public life and look within his family for a safe haven from many disappointments. His ultimate sacrifice, in his words, to make it impossible that the Government should fall into criminal hands. A decision that led him to notify the Government of Washington:

… “of he true situation in the country, and the lack of measures by my Government to provide protection to property, considering that the time had come for the United States made use of the right conferred by the Platt Amendment. So it did” …

For these reasons, on September 28, together with the Vice President and the secretaries, he submitted his resignation to Congress and the country came under a provisional government headed by the Secretary of War the United States, William H. Taft, which constituted the second American intervention in Cuba.

The lack of civic culture, the absence of the citizenry in the decisions regarding the destiny of the nation, the tendency to violent solutions and Messianism, demonstrated itself in the work of the Cuban political elite. A portrait put forth magisterially by Carlos Loveira in his republic of “General and Doctors. ”

According to Hortensia Pichardo, the first Cuban republic had been killed by its own children. I would say that at the hands of a handful of its children, because the vast majority, as in other political events, was absent from those decisions. The teaching of this episode in our history, and of others we attempt, indicates that the preparation for political participation is a long and difficult, but much safer than we have traveled so far, where the majority of Cubans have very little to do with what is happening.

Translated by uncledavid

August 2 2010

A Superfluous List / Miriam Celaya

In late November, a kind reader wrote to me suggesting I prepare a list of all dissident groups and political parties on the Island. Since the proposal has appeared publicly in the comments on more than one occasion, I propose –in turn- to answer publicly and take the opportunity to share some impressions, given that other Cuban friends inside and outside the country have shown interest in the subject.

I, for one, decline the privilege and the overwhelming responsibility of that task for many reasons. The first and strongest one is that I am part of this varied set that is grouped under the generic name of dissidents, truly diverse in interests, proposals, projections, performances, stories, successes, failures, etc., not to mention the human components and personal nuances that dot all these aspects. It is against all ethics to be judge and party to any process. It also happens that, in order to compile a list of this nature, basic concepts would have to be defined, such as “political party”, “opposition group” or “independent civil society” (in all its manifested forms today in Cuba). This omission also involves risks that could hurt feelings, or carry value judgments that may be subjective.

I have personally heard criteria that overestimate the strength and organization of Cuban dissidents, and others that undervalue it. In fact, after two decades of what we conventionally call here “the surge of the opposition” — characterized by the emergence of some peaceful organizations under the influx of transformative ideas that swept the former socialist camp, and amid the general crisis known as “The Special Period” — the different groups have yet to achieve enough visibility or roots in Cuban society, despite the efforts they have made and the repression suffered by many of their leaders. The causes and ratings for this phenomenon will be properly analyzed in a conceivable immediate future by political scientists and historians better able to do it than this blogger, so I will limit myself for now to say that –- beyond their successes and failures — movements and opposition groups that have existed and still exist in Cuba have set an important precedent in the struggle for the rights and freedoms of the Cuban people through peaceful struggle, and have also demonstrated the existence of a large segment of the population of the Island that does not share in the ideology imposed by the dictatorship and is demanding changes. Breaking the idyllic image of a false unity and the highly publicized “the people united with its government” was a titanic chore that these opponents had to fight against in the last 20 years, at a high personal cost. At some point, its true value will need to be recognized.

Another factor that undermines the development of a reliable list is the instability of some groups. Many of them have had or have a short life, i.e., they surge around a leader’s nucleus but quickly disappear, either by the loss, incarceration, or departure of the leader, or the lack of strength, civic, or political culture of their members. Sometimes they group under one name and then change it when they merge into other groups, or groups split and give rise to lesser groups in continual multiplication. At times, there seem to be lots of opposition groups or political parties, and there are people abroad who cannot imagine how, if this is so, the groups have not been able to overthrow, or at least weaken the dictatorship. In fact, not even peaceful means can be effective unless parties are consolidated and venues for moderation are found, both among social actors who promote change and society as a whole, as well as between them and the government. The old vices of Cuban culture that push us over and over again toward immediacy, improvisation, the search for the limelight, and leaders who are more or less charismatic are key difficulties that have fragmented basic problems and have weakened opposition movements for many years, hence they have not managed to become alternatives to power or even observers of political processes of interest in half a century, as happened with the recent (and as yet without complete results) talks between the government of R. Castro and senior Catholic hierarchy of the Island. This is so true that the very Cuban government, in the midst of the most serious structural crisis of the system that he introduced, allows itself the arrogance to launch insufficient and ridiculous economic reforms that guarantee him more time in power, at least time enough to finish divvying up the piñata and parcel out the spoils of this poor flattened out hacienda. I believe, therefore, that a “list of opponents” at present, far from contributing, could become another element of discord among some jealous and restless spirits. I really don’t think it appropriate or a priority.

But opponents are not only grouped in political parties. There are also civic organizations, for example, The Ladies in White, the Latin American Federation of Rural Women (FLAMUR), the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, headed by Elizardo Sánchez; the website, where multiple blogs share space, including Yoani, and several portfolios that can be considered the cradle of the Cuban alternative blogosphere, the blogger platform Voces Cubanas, with a large group of people of all ages and diverse views and interests, as well as the digital magazine Convivencia, which Dagoberto Valdés manages from Pinar del Río, among other civic groups. The importance of these stems from gradually creating venues for free, open and spontaneous debate, without belonging to any political party or answering to any ideology. Political parties and citizens of the future might someday emerge from these groups, without excluding any current groups. Life is always richer than any human forecast, but some of us Cubans are convinced that developing citizens to democratize Cuba is an inescapable and foremost task. The end of a dictatorship would be of little worth if the danger of an escalating one is sustained. We mustn’t forget that it was we Cubans who placed ourselves in the critical point where we are today.

In conclusion, I believe that Cuba is set to create different venues that will encourage the growth of the alternative civil society, which will, in turn, give way to the emergence of institutions capable of upholding the rights and freedoms of citizens. It’s important to create citizens rather than political parties; to create civic culture, accentuating within it the ethical and juridical culture; to convert complaints into requests, into claims, into positive actions. The Ladies in White, Orlando Zapata and Guillermo Fariñas are the most visible evidence of this. It truly is a very long and arduous road that we will have to travel simultaneously toward the eventual extinction of the dictatorial regime. This imposes the dual action of pushing and forcing the government as much as possible, and, at the same time, of creating civic conscience in millions of slaves. However, it has been plainly shown that when it comes to a common destiny, improvisations are useless. Over one century of being a Republic without citizens has been lesson enough.

Translated by Norma Whiting

December 22, 2010

One Year for “Crossing the Barbed Wire” / Luis Felipe Rojas

Photo/Luis Felipe Rojas

I would have liked to have a public celebration in an internet cafe because in every respect this blog is not mine alone, but it also belongs to my readers and friends. But reality imposes itself and I know I am far from such merrymaking.

The generosity of a group of people has allowed me to post from a physical and technological distance, living in this little town in the center of eastern Cuba.

The kindness of some kids (I am nearly double their ages) have made it possible to have my work read in English, French, and, God willing, in a few days in Polish, and this, for a writer whose books haven’t sold 500 copies, is an unbelievable celebration.

It’s been a year and writing this diary, this road map of the Cuban reality has given me a passport to some police cells, a gang of outlaws who watch my house every day (they make a living out of that), and has placed my name on the lists of various highway checkpoints. That is not a record, or even a good average, just the response of a wounded animal: the absolute power that does not permit fingers to point out its stains.

A balance sheet of the road taken reassures me that the whippings for not bowing down have been greater than the awards and nominations, but this will serve as a reminder of what happens in my country, not a wailing wall or a tourist postcard. Those who seek to discredit me: thank you for the time that you dedicate to me, the actions of the regime you defend give me reasons and strength to continue. To those who encourage me: “Rosi de Cuba,” “Armienne,” Lory,” “Gabriel” and everyone else, thank you, I humbly say, thank you, I will try to be more objective every day, you’ll see.

The interest of Yoani Sanchez so that I could open this weapon against the human rights violators and those who think they own this country has made this part of the blog possible. To her, I express my gratitude.

Finally, my faithful administrator, that person who from the North Pole will continue being a guajira, and a good soul beyond compare, thank you.

What I can say with all the pleasure of the world is that this is a blog that is made in fragments, between the horror that I see, and that my countrymen tell me about, the little I know about writing to put these stories together, and the commentary of the readers, for all that, applaud yourselves. Greater efforts will come. Congratulations.

Translated by Rick Schwag

December 26 2010