Born on the Roof

Screen grab from Madagascar (1994), a film directed by  Fernando Pérez

Screen grab from Madagascar (1994), a film directed by Fernando Pérez

14ymedio, YOANI SANCHEZ, Havana, 28 October 2014 – Some cities have a subterranean life. Metros, tunnels, basements… the human victory of winning inches from the stone. Havana no, Havana is a surface city, with very little underground. However, on the roofs of the houses, on the most unthinkable rooftops, little houses have been erected, baths, pig pens and pigeon coops. As if above the ceilings everything were possible, unreachable.

Ignacio has an illegal satellite dish on a neighbor’s roof, it is hidden under grape vines that gives undersized sour grapes. A few yards away someone has built a cage for fighting dogs, which seek out the shade during the day, thirsty and bored. On the other side of the street several members of one family broke down the wall that connects to the roof of an old state workshop. They’ve built a terrace and a toilet on the abandoned place. At nightfall they play dominos, while the breezes of the Malecon wash over them.

Carmita keeps all her treasure on top of her house. Some enormous wooden beams with which she wants to shore up her quarters before they fall in. Every week she climbs up to see if the rain and the heat have swollen the wood and cracked the pillars. Her grandson uses the roof for trysts, when night falls and the eyes barely distinguish shadows, although the ears detect the moans.

Everyone lives a part of their existence up there, in the Havana that wants to stretch to the sky but can barely manage to rise a few inches.

The Utopias and Dissidences of Pedro Pablo Oliva

Excerpt from 'The strange ramblings of Utopito' from the Pedro Pablo Oliva exhibition, Utopias and Dissidences (14ymedio)

Excerpt from ‘The Strange Ramblings of Utopito’ from the Pedro Pablo Oliva exhibition, Utopias and Dissidences (14ymedio)

YOANI SÁNCHEZ, 27 October 2014 – Some years ago I visited the studio of the painter Pedro Pablo Oliva. We had hardly seen each other on any previous occasion, but he led me into his studio and showed me a work to which he was giving the finishing touches. An enormous vertical canvas rose in front of me and the artist remained silent, without explaining anything. In the middle of the fabric two figures levitated. One was Fidel Castro, translucent as if we were looking through an X-ray, looking aged and with a somewhat ghostly air. Between his arms he was squeezing to the point of suffocation a languid girl who seemed to want to escape from that grip. It was Cuba, exhausted by such all-consuming company. At his feet, a group of tiny little citizens with empty eyes were watching – or imagining – the scene.

I could never forget that picture, because in a limited number of inches Oliva had traced the national map of the last half century. His daring in that work affected me, as he had already done in his classic The Great Blackout (1994), released when the power cuts were more than an artistic metaphor. Now, years later, I learned of the cancellation of his exposition Utopias and Dissidences in the Pinar del Rio Art Museum. The official justifications suggested that the city didn’t have the “subjective favorable conditions” to open the show. A contrived way of rejecting the uncomfortable images where the character of Utopito was questioning the ideologues and their dreams, starting from the outcomes.

However, Oliva’s tenacity has run ahead of the culture officials and he just announced that the censored exhibition will eventually be held at his workshop. Thus, as of November first his admirers in Pinar del Rio and across the whole island will be able to enjoy some of the works of Utopias and Dissidences, because given the small exhibit space not everything will be able to be included.

In this same room where a lifeless politician squeezed his country to the point of suffocation, in a few days we will be able to see if she managed to escape this fatal embrace, continue her life, continue her creation.

There will be 14yMedio for a very long time, gentlemen of State Security

Journalist Juan Carlos Fernandez and  economist Karina Galvez Chiú. (Source: Facebook)

Journalist Juan Carlos Fernandez and economist Karina Galvez Chiú. (Source: Facebook)

Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 7 October 2014 – Monday afternoon was like any other for Juan Carlos Fernandez. The water stubbornly persisted in not coming out of the pipes, so cup by cup he collected it from the lowest source in his house. The family revolved around his mother-in-law, who had been suffering for half a year, dying, and now and again this lanky and smiling man from Pinar del Rio looked at the phone to see if there were any messages.

The routine was broken when someone knocked on the door and handed him a summons from the police. El Juanca – as his friends call him – is accustomed to State Security calling him to account. His longtime work with Coexistence magazine and his nonconformity as a citizen have taken him, on many occasions, to police cells and stations. So, he didn’t even flinch and notified all those who love him and appreciate him.

This morning he was finally face-to-face with a police official at the Technical Investigation Department (DTI). The topic at hand was as predictable as it was invasive of his rights. His collaboration with our little digital daily newspaper was the reason for the most recent box on the ears they gave him.

“They gave me a written warning for working for an illegal unregistered publication,” Juanca told me. With the mix of playfulness and good humor that characterizes him, he quickly suggested to the lady “that they allow the legalization of 14ymedio.”

Clearly, she responded evasively to his proposal, because fact of not allowing non-governmental media to exist seems to be an indispensable condition to sustain the official press, which is so bad from the journalistic point of view that only its status as a monopoly can ensure that it has an audience.

“You people are not journalists,” the official snapped. To which Juanca shot back, “Differences aside, neither was José Martí.”

Among other falsehoods, the police told him that 14ymedio was a newspaper financed by USAID. Although this accusation is repeated against any independent project, in this case it demonstrates ignorance more than malice. This newspaper, publicly and transparently, has a business structure that can be read in detail in the “About Us” section of its digital page.

This financial arrangement was precisely one of the conditions we found indispensable to undertaken renewed journalism with a sustainable press media. Unlike the government newspaper Granma, and all the official newspapers, we do not dip our hands into the state coffers to produce political propaganda. We are waiting anxiously, it’s true, for them to allow us to register our small enterprise in the corporate records of our country. Will they dare to allow it?

We are waiting anxiously for them to allow us to register our small … Will they dare to allow it?

We want to have legal status, to hang a sign on the door of our editorial offices and display, without fear, our press credentials. Why do they refuse us this right? Haven’t they realized that a press hijacked by a single party doesn’t meet the information demands of a plural and diverse country like ours? Will they ever have the political courage to pass a law so that independent journalism will emerge from the shadows into public life?

When that functionary lies without giving us the right to reply, she is using her authority to commit a true abuse of power. Which becomes even more dramatic because of the level of disinformation within which most Cubans and apparently, the political police as well, exist.

Wrapped in her uniform, the official also told Juanca that our media dedicated itself to “defaming and denigrating the achievements of the Revolution.” With this statement, the lady made it clear that in this country only media that sings the praises of the system can exist; and on the other hand, it gives the impression that she has privileged access to 14ymedio, because since our birth, on 21 May 2014, we have been blocked on the Island’s servers. Madam, do you enter our page via anonymous proxies? Or, even worse, are you talking about something you’ve never seen? I fear it’s the latter.

I also challenge this policewoman to point out to me a single characteristic of the current Cuban political system that allows her to call it a “Revolution.” Where is the dynamism? The character of renewal? The movement? Please, update your words – not out of respect for this renegade philologist who believes in the semantics of the terminology – but because, as long as you don’t publicly acknowledge that you are stuck in a stagnant and fossilized history, you will not be able to implement the solutions this nation urgently needs.

During the interrogation, our Pinar del Rio correspondent was also threatened that, if it looked like he was practicing journalism, he would be arrested and his phone and camera confiscated. Let’s hear it for the ideological bulwark information puts at risk! I understand the truth less and less.

In this situation we have come to, everything is possible. Repression, in the worst style of the 2003 Black Spring; the rifle butts breaking down the doors; the continuation of the campaign of defamation, increasingly ineffectual… this and much more. What will not happen is that, faced with the fear and the pressure, we will cease to do journalism. 14ymedio is going to be around for a long time, so you might as well get used to living with us.

Tiananmen Returns

The Tank Man became internationally known, caught standing before a column of tanks in the Tiananmen revolt (1989)

The Tank Man became internationally known, caught standing before a column of tanks in the Tiananmen revolt (1989)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 30 September 2014 – Memory can rarely be put to rest. Memories don’t understand permissions or authorizations, they return, period. For a quarter of a century the Chinese government has tried to erase the events of Tiananmen Square, but now the thousands of young people who are protesting on the streets of Hong Kong evoke them. It’s hard not to think of that man with the shopping bag stationed in front of tank, while looking at these people who demand the resignation of an official as servile to Beijing as he is unpopular.

Twenty-five years of trying to clean up the official history of what happened in that other social explosion that ended in the most brutal repression hasn’t accomplished much. Those streets full of peaceful but exhausted people show it. However, there are also great differences between the 1989 revolt in the Asian giant and the current demonstrations in their “special administrative region.” The fundamental change is that we are participants—from our televisions, digital newspapers and social networks—in every moment the people of Hong Kong are experiencing. The lack of information that surrounded the Tiananmen Square protests now has its counterpart in a barrage of tweets, photos and videos coming from thousands of mobile phones

For how many years will the Chinese government try to erase what is happening today? How will they strengthen the Great Firewall within the country so that people don’t know what is happening so close by? The violent repression of last Sunday only serves to add to the determination and the number of protestors in the streets of the ex-British colony. However, despite the multitudes and the numerous digital screens shining in the Hong Kong night, memory persists in taking us back to one man. An individual who was returning from the market and decided that the treads of a tank were not going to crush his remaining civility. Twenty-five years later, reality is echoing his gesture.

The Lessons of Lope de Vega

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Flash

Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 18 September 2014 – A friend visting Cuba for the first time asked me why the government can put an end to the illegal distribution of the so-called “audiovisual packets.” “They just have to detect who makes it and trades in it, to be able to stop it,” the young man speculated. I reminded him of the work Fuenteovejuna, written by Lope de Vega. In three acts, the noted Spanish playwright tells how a town rebels against the abuse of power. The villagers unite against the injustice and together assume responsibility for the death of the local oppressor. “Who killed the Commander? Fuenteovejuna, señor,” we learned from the theater of the Golden Age and have put into practice, at least in the compilation and distribution of programs, documentaries and other digital materials.

My friend listened incredulously to my explanation, so I offered a more concrete example. Some months ago a traveled to Spain to participate in a technology event. Before saying goodbye, my family and friends asked me to bring them various things, as is common in such an undersupplied country. However, unlike other times when I left with a long list of shoe and clothing sizes, this time the requests were very different. A neighbor on the third floor wanted an update of the Avast antivirus and asked that I download a course in small business accounting. Two cousins noted the details of a videogame—with all the updates—so I could bring it back. A niece’s husband asked me for PDFs of some magazines about industrial design and almost all agreed that an off-line copy of Revolico—the Cuban Craigslist—would be fantastic.

The list of things to bring was very significant to me. I alternated the soap and deodorant, unavailable in the stores these days, with drivers for an acquaintance who lost the installation disks. The sweet seller on the corner asked me for a digital encyclopedia of pastry, and a friend who is learning to drive needed a simulator for a PC. A photographer colleague asked me to download some Android apps that wold let her retouch images and a relative learning English demanded all the chapters of a Podcast to practice that language.

The two nights I spent in Granada I barely slept two hours, because the list of what I had to download off the Internet was very long. I took advantage of the connectivity to also download about fifty TED talks, to bring some of the fresh wind of entrepreneurs and creative people to the Island. I renamed some files to be able to find them more easily in the numerous folders containing the requests and returned to Havana. In less than 48 hours the orders were delivered, even a Pilates course on video requested by the owner of a nearby fitness center, and a digital gallery for a university professor who urgently needed images of Egyptian art. Everyone was satisfied.

Several weeks passed and one day I got the latest update of the “packet” that was circulating. To my surprise, the TED talks included in it were exactly the same files I’d downloaded from the web and later renamed. So I could confirm that all of us—in one way or another—form a part of and feed this alternative bulletin board that circulates hand to hand.

Poor Commander, you already know that the packet is “all for one, señor,” like Lope de Vega taught us.

Of Freebies and Schools

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Elementary school students (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 12 September 2014 – The school bell rings and the children enter the classroom followed by their parents. The first day of classes triggers joy, although a few tears are shed by some who miss their homes. That’s what happened to Carla, who just started kindergarten at a school in Cerro. The little girl is lucky because she got a teacher who has taught elementary school for several years and has mastered the content. “What luck!” some of the little one’s family members think, just before another mother warns them, “But beware of the teacher, she demands every student bring her a bit of a snack from home.”

On the afternoon of September 1, the first parent meeting took place. After the introductions and welcoming remarks, the teacher enumerated everything that the classroom was lacking. “We have to raise money for a fan,” she said, unsmiling. Carla had already suffered from the morning heat, so her mother gave the 3 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC) that was her daughter’s share, so she would have a little breeze while studying. ”We also need to buy a broom and mop for cleaning, three fluorescent tubes for the lights, and a trash can,” said the teaching assistant.

A list of requests and needs added some disinfectant for the bathroom, “Because we don’t want the flu,” said the teacher herself. The total expenditures began to grow, and a lock was added, “So that no one steals things when there’s no one in the school.” A father offered some green paint to paint the blackboard, and another offered to fix the hinges on the door, which was lopsided. “I recommend that you buy the children’s notebooks on the street because the ones we received to hand out this year are as thin as onion skin and tear just by using an eraser,” the teacher added.

After the meeting Carla’s family calculated some 250 Cuban pesos in expenses to support the little girl’s education, half the monthly salary of her father, who is a chemical engineer. Then the school principal came to the meeting and rounded it off with, “If anyone knows a carpenter and wants to hire him to fix their child’s desk, feel free.”

Who is Filling the University Classrooms?

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New students at the University of Havana (14ymedio)

Yoani Sánchez, Havana, 2 September 2014 — Born during the Special Period, they have grown up trapped in the dual currency system, and when they get their degrees Raul Castro will no longer be in power. They are the more than one hundred thousand young people just starting college throughout the country. Their brief biographies include educational experiments, battles of ideas, and the emergence of new technologies They know more about X-Men than about Elpidio Valdés, and only remember Fidel Castro from old photos and archived documentaries.

They are the Wi-Fi kids with their pirate networks, raised with the “packets” of copied shows and illegal satellite dishes. Some nights they would connect through routers and play strategy video games that made them feel powerful and free. Whoever wants to know them should know that they’ve had “emerging teachers” since elementary school and were taught grammar, math and ideology via television screens. However, they ended up being the least ideological of the Cubans who today inhabit this Island, the most cosmopolitan and with the greatest vision of the future.

On arriving at junior high school they played at throwing around around the obligatory snack of bread while their parents furtively passed their lunches through the school gate. They have a special physical ability, an adaptation that has allowed them to survive the environment; they don’t hear what doesn’t interest them, they close their ears to the harangues of morning assemblies and politicians. They seem lazier than other generations and in reality they are, but in their case this apathy acts like an evolutionary advantage. They’re better than us and will live in a country that has nothing to do with what we were promised.

They seem lazier than other generations and in reality they are, but in their case this apathy acts like an evolutionary advantage.

A few months ago, these same young people, starred in the best known case of school fraud uncovered publicly. Some of those hoping to earn a place in higher education bought the answers to an admissions test. They were used to paying for approval, because they had to turn to private tutors to teach them what they should have learned in the classroom. Many of those who recently enrolled in the university had private teachers starting in elementary school. They are the children of a new emerging class that has used its resources so that their children can reach a desk at the right hand—or the left—of the Alma Mater.

These young people dressed in uniforms in their earlier grades, but they struggled to differentiate themselves through the length of a shirt, a fringe of bleached hair, or through pants sagging below their hips. They are the children of those who barely had a change of underwear in the nineties, so their parents tried to make sure they didn’t “go through the same thing,” and turned to the black market for their clothes and shoes. They mock the false austerity and, not wanting to look like militants, they love bright shiny colors and name brand outfits.

Yesterday, with the start of the school year, they received a lecture about the attempts of “imperialism to undermine the Revolution through its youth.” It was like a faint drizzle running over an impervious surface. The Government is right to be worried, these young people who have entered the university will never become good soldiers or fanatics. The clay from which they are made cannot be molded.