Havana, how you hurt me!

Collapsed building in Havana (Photo: Sylvia Corbelle)

Collapsed building in Havana (Photo: Sylvia Corbelle)

Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 16 November 2004 – To be a Havanan is not having been born in a territory, it’s carrying that territory on your back and not being able to put it down. The first time I realized I belonged to this city I was seven years old. I was in a little town in Villa Clara, trying to reach some guavas on a branch, when a bunch of kids from the place surrounded my sister and me. “They’re from Havana! They’re from Havana!” they shrieked. At that moment we didn’t understand so much uproar, but with time we realized that we had come by a sad privilege. Having been born in this city in decline, in this city whose major attraction is what it could be, not what it is.

I am totally urban, a city girl. I grew up in the Cayo Hueso neighborhood where the nearest trees are more than 500 yards away. I am the child of asphalt, of the smell of kerosene, of clotheslines dripping from the balconies and sewer pipes that overflow from time to time. This has never been an easy city. Not even on the tourist postcards, with their retouched colors, can you see a comfortable and comprehensible Havana.

Sometimes now I don’t want to walk it, because it hurts me. I am heading up Belascoaín, my back the sea that I know so well. I arrive at the corner of Reina Street. There is a Gothic-style church, which as a little girl I perceived to be lost in the clouds. I saw my first Christmas tree there when I was seventeen. I walk though the doors, skipping a little to this side and that. Water trickles down some stairs and a woman tries to sell me some milk caramels that are the same color as the street.

I see the traffic light at Galiano, but the pace slows because there are so many people. A cop turns the corner and some hide themselves behind the doors or slip into stores as if they were going to buy something. When the officer leaves, they return and offer their merchandise in undertones. Because Havana is a city of cries and whispers. Those immersed in their own blather may never hear the whispers. The most important things are always said with a nod, a gesture or a simple pursing of the lips that warns you, “be careful,” “coming over there,” “follow me.” A language developed during decades of the clandestine and illegal.

Neptune Street is nearby. I hear an old couple in front of a façade saying, “Hey? Wasn’t it here where there was…?” but I didn’t manage to hear the end of the sentence. Better that way, because Havana is a sequence of nostalgia, memories. When you walk, it’s like you’re traversing the path of the lost. Where a building collapses into rubble that remains for days, for weeks. Later, the hole is made into a park, or a metal kiosk is built to sell soap, trinkets and rum. A lot of rum, because this is a city that drowns its sorrows in alcohol.

I reach the Malecon. In less than half an hour I’ve walked the slice of the city that in my childhood seemed to contain the whole metropolis. Because I was a “guajira de Centro Habana,” an urchin of downtown, one of those who thinks that “the green zones” start right after Infanta Street. With time, I understood that this capital is too big to know the whole of. I also learned that those born in the neighborhoods of Diez de Octubre, el Cerro, el Vedado or Marianao, shared the same sensation of pain. In any event, Havana shows its wounds in any neighborhood.

I touch the wall that separates us from the sea. It is rough and warm. Where are those kids who, in my childhood, in a remote little village, looked at me in astonishment because I was a Havanan? Will they want to bear this burden? Have they also ended up in this city, living among its dumpsters and lights? Does it pain them like it pains me? I’m sure it does, because Havana is not just a location inscribed in our identity documents. This city is a cross that is carried everywhere, a territory that once you have lived it, you cannot abandon.

Our wall has not fallen … but it is not eternal

The fall of the Berlin Wall or the birth of a new era (Archive Photo)

The fall of the Berlin Wall or the birth of a new era (Archive Photo)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 9 November 2014 – My life up to then had always been lived between walls. The wall of the Malecon that separated me from a world of which I’d only heard the horror. The wall of the school where I studied when Germany was reunified. The long wall behind which the illegal sellers of sweets and treats hid themselves. Almost six feet of some overlapping bricks that some classmates jumped over to get out of classes, as indoctrinating as they were boring. To this was added the wall of silence and fear. At home, my parents put their fingers to their lips, speaking in whispers… something happened, but they didn’t tell me what.

In November of 1989 the Berlin Will fell. In reality, it was knocked down with a sledgehammer and a chisel. Those who threw themselves against it were the same people who, weeks earlier, appeared to obey the Communist Party and believe in the paradise of the proletariat. The news came to us slowly and fragmented. Cuba’s ruling party tried to distract attention and minimize the matter; but the details leaked out little by little. That year my adolescence ended. I was only fourteen and everything that came afterwards left me no space for naivety.

Berliners awoke to the noise of the hammers and we Cubans discovered that the promised future was a complete lie

The masks fell on by one. Berliners awoke to the noise of hammers and we Cubans discovered that the promised future was a complete lie. While Eastern Europe shrugged off the long embrace of the Kremlin, Fidel Castro screamed from the dais, promising in the name of everybody that we would never give up. Few had the insight to realize that that political delusion would condemn us to the most difficult years to confront several generations of Cubans. The wall fell far away, while another parapet was raised around us, that of ideological blindness, irresponsibility and voluntarism.

A quarter century has passed. Today Germans and the whole world are celebrating the end of an absurdity. They are taking stock of the achievements since that November and enjoying the freedom to complain about what hasn’t gone well. We, in Cuba, have missed out on twenty-five years of climbing aboard history’s bandwagon. For our country, the wall is still standing, although right now few are propping up a bulwark erected more at the whim of one man than by the decision of a people.

Our wall hasn’t fallen… but it is not eternal.

The Good USAID and the Bad USAID

Cuban medics in a USAID hospital in Monrovia, Liberia

Cuban medics in a USAID hospital in Monrovia, Liberia

YOANI SÁNCHEZ, 3 November 2014 — Just a few months ago we experienced an avalanche of official propaganda targeted to attacks on the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Those initials came to represent the enemy with whom they frighten us from our television screens, platforms, and even classrooms. However, to our surprise, this week we’ve learned that some Cuban doctors arriving in Liberia will work in a field hospital financed by this “terrible agency.”

Although the official press has avoided publishing pictures showing our compatriots next to the logo of USAID, the odd photo has escaped censorship. So suddenly, there is a crack in the story of confrontation, the rhetoric of the adversary does not hold water, and clearly evident is all the moral relativism of those who fabricate the ideological crusades with which they bombard us from the mass media.

Could someone ask the Associated Press (AP) to investigate as soon as possible this “secret” conspiracy between the Plaza of the Revolution and an agency that receives guidance from the U.S. State Department? We are eager to see the rivers of ink that this strange collaboration provokes, the “revelations,” the secret memorandums and the veiled-face confessions that explain such a collaboration.

However, the answer that will be given by those who reject USAID support for Cuban Civil Society but seem fine working shoulder to shoulder with the island’s authorities, will be that in humanitarian issues have no political colors. As if to inform and technologically empower oneself weren’t a question of survival in the twenty-first century. The official press, for its part, will rush to explain that, when it’s about saving lives, Cuban doctors are willing to put aside their differences. But none of these is the real explanation.

The bottom line is that Raul Castro’s government is eager to express and receive belligerence from its great northern neighbor. What it will not tolerate and will never accept is grants to or recognition of the belligerence of its own civil society. It is anxious to take a family photo with Uncle Sam, as long as no one invites the bastard nephew that is the Cuban population.

Power is attracted to itself, these images of the last few days want to tell us. If a young Cuban receives a text message summoning him to an alternative concert, he should be careful – according to what the official commentators warn us on our little screens – because the imperialist could be behind each character. They don’t use the same ethical yardstick, however, to evaluate a health care professional who works under the tent, over the stretchers, and with the syringes funded by USAID.

How are they going to explain to the children, who have spent months being frightened by the United States Agency for International Development, that now their fathers or uncles who went to Liberia are working in a hospital built with funds from that agency?

When Ronald Hernandez Torres, one of the Cuban doctors who traveled to Liberia, wrote on his Facebook page that “this unit has the best conditions for patient care, and the best professionals from different countries working side by side,” did he, perhaps, know that all this is being funded by the same agency that is latest nemesis that the Castro regime has found to frighten us with?

As always happens, the cries of political hysteria end up drowning out the voices that raise arguments. Although, as a general rule, the official version is usually imposed because it is the highest insult, this should not discourage us to look for the reasons and to reveal the contradictions of their discourse.

I now know, that at the end of the year, when we look at the balance of reporting in the headlines of our national newspapers, the impression will be that the Havana government and USAID are irreconcilable enemies. But it is a lie. The principal confrontation that continues to be set in stone and without ceding an inch, is what emerges from the powers-that-be in Cuba toward their own people.

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.