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.

Jabitas (Plastic Bags) and Pensions for the Elderly

Selling 'jabitas' (plastic bags) in front of an agricultural market in Havana. (Luz Escobar)

Selling ‘jabitas’ (plastic bags) in front of an agricultural market in Havana. (Luz Escobar)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 28 August 2014 – “I need some dark glasses,” Veronica told me one day when I ran into her on the street. Almost seventy, the lady underwent cataract surgery some months ago and now must “take care of my eyes,” as she explained to me. She works in the sun selling jabitas (plastic bags) to the customers of the farmers market on Tulipan Street. The harsh midday glare is hard on her eyesight, but that’s not the worst of her problems. “We have an alarm system to know when the police are coming, although sometimes they’re in plainclothes and catch us by surprise.” Last month she paid a 1,500 Cuban peso fine (roughly $60 US) for engaging in illegal sales, and this week she received a warning letter for recidivism for the same offense.

If you read articles like Randy Alonso’s about the absence of bags in the hard currency stores, you might come to believe this resource is being diverted into the hands of unscrupulous traders. However, it’s enough to simply know Veronica to understand that her business is one more of misery than of profit. For the four decades she worked as a cleaning assistant in a school, the lady now receives a pension that doesn’t exceed ten dollars a month. Without the resale of the plastic bags, she would have to beg, but she asserts that she “would die before asking for money in the streets.” She is not to blame, rather she is a victim of the circumstances that have pushed her into an illegal activity to survive.

Having to carry purchases in one’s hands in the absence of bags is something that annoys any buyer. But realizing that Randy Alonzo, one of the great spokesmen of the current system, doesn’t know the human dramas that lead to the diversion of plastic bags, is even more irritating. It’s not about callous people who are dedicated to enriching themselves through the fruits of State embezzlement, but rather citizens whose economic poverty leads them to resell whatever product comes into their hands. Right now Veronica is outside some business, wearing the old dark glasses they gave her, muttering “I have jabitas, I have jabitas, one peso each.”

Female Caricature

Woman drinking (14ymedio)

Woman drinking (14ymedio)

14yMEDIO, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 22 August 2014 – A woman on national television said that her husband “helps” her with some household chores. To many, the phrase may sound like the highest aspiration of every woman. Another lady asserts that her husband behaves like a “Federated man,” an allusion to the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), which today is celebrating its 54th anniversary. As for me, on this side of the screen, I feel sorry for them in the face of such meekness. Instead of the urgent demands they should mention, all I hear is this appreciation directed to a power as manly as it is deaf.

It’s not about “helping” to wash a plate or watch the kids, nor tiny illusory gender quotas that hide so much discrimination like a slap. The problem is that economic and political power remains mainly in masculine hands. What percentage of car owners are women? How many acres of land are owned or leased by women. How many Cuban ambassadors on missions abroad wear skirts? Can anyone recite the number of men who request paternity leave to take care of their newborns? How many young men are stopped by the police each day to warn them they can’t walk with a tourist? Who mostly attends the parent meetings at the schools?

Please, don’t try to “put us to sleep” with figures in the style of, “65% of our cadres and 50% of our grassroots leaders are women.” The only thing this statistic means is that more responsibility falls on our shoulders, which means neither a high decision-making level nor greater rights. At least such a triumphalist phrase clarifies that there are “grassroots leaders,” because we know that decisions at the highest level are made by men who grew up under the precepts that we women are beautiful ornaments to have at hand…always and as long as we keep our mouths shut.

I feel sorry for the docile and timid feminist movement that exists in my country. Ashamed for those ladies with their ridiculous necklaces and abundant makeup who appear in the official media to tell us that “the Cuban woman has been the greatest ally of the Revolution.” Words spoken at the same moment when a company director is sexually harassing his secretary, when a beaten woman can’t get a restraining order against her abusive husband, when a policeman tells the victim of a sexual assault, “Well, with that skirt you’re wearing…” and the government recruits shock troops for an act of repudiation against the Ladies in White.

Women are the sector of the population that has the most reason to shout their displeasure. Because half a century after the founding of the caricature of an organization that is the Federation of Cuban Women, we are neither more free, nor more powerful, nor even more independent.

Chrome Becomes “Legal” in Cuba

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Yesterday, the giant Google authorized the download of their well-known browser Chrome by Cuban internauts. The announcement came just two months after several of the American company’s executives visited Havana and saw for themselves the problems we suffer accessing the vast World Wide Web.

Among the topics of conversation between several members of 14ymedio and Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, were precisely these restrictions. Hence, our satisfaction on knowing that the opinions of citizens interested in the free flow of information and technology influenced the elimination of this prohibition. An obstacle that, while it was in effect, affected the Cuban population more than a Government that is among the greatest Internet predators in the world.

During their trip to Cuba the four Google directors not only suffered the inconvenience of the digital sites censored by the Cuban authorities, and the high prices to connect from public places, but also experienced the restrictions imposed by their own company on Cuban Internet users. If must have been a particularly bitter pill to swallow to try to download Google Chrome and see the screen appear saying, “This service is not available in your country.”

We Cuban user, fortunately, had not expected the American company to be allowed to access the program from a national Internet Provider. Google Chrome, along with Mozilla Firefox and the controversial Internet Explorer, have been the most used browsers in our country. It simply required someone to bring an installer, after downloading it for free on a trip abroad, for it to pass from hand to hand—or flash memory stick to flash memory stick— and to be installed on hundreds (thousands?) of computers.

What has happened now is that we have gone from being illegal users to joining the brotherhood of more than 750 million people around the world using this program in an authorized manner. Services such as Google AnalyticsGoogle Earth and the Android App Store are now awaiting a similar thaw. Hopefully we will not have to wait from another visit to Cuba by directors of Google for these limitations to be eliminated!

21 August 2014

Dengue Fever and Tall Stories for Children

Leaks like this foster the breeding of the Aedes aegypti mosquito that carries dengue fever. (14ymedio)

Leaks like this foster the breeding of the Aedes aegypti mosquito that carries dengue fever. (14ymedio)

Explaining death to a child is always a difficult task. Some parents reach for a metaphor and others lie. The adults justify someone’s death to children with phrases that range from “he’s gone to heave to live on a cloud,” to the tall story that “he’s gone on a trip.” The worst is when these inventions transcend the family and become the political information policy of a State. To falsify to people the actual incidence of death, is to rob them of their maturity and deny their right to transparency.

In 1981 an epidemic of dengue hemorrhagic fever broke out in Cuba. I was barely six, but that situation left me deeply traumatized. The first thing they told us in school was that the disease had been introduced by “Yankee imperialism.” The Uncle Sam of my childish nightmares no longer threatened us with a gun, but rather with a huge Aedes aegypti mosquito, ready to infect us with bonebreak fever. My family panicked when they began to learn about the dead children. The emergency room at the Central Havana Pediatric Hospital was a hive of screaming and crying. My mother asked me once an hour if anything hurt, her hand on my forehead checking for fever.

There was no information, only whispers and fear, a lot of fear. By not speaking publicly about the true source of the evil, the population could barely protect itself. In my primary school we kept running to the shelter—underneath the Ministry of Basic Industries—in the face of the “imminent military attack” that was coming from the North. Meanwhile, a small stealthy enemy ran rampant among people my age. That lie didn’t take long to become obvious. Decades later dengue fever has returned, although I dare say it never left, and all these years the health authorities have tried to hide it.

Now there is no one else to blame, as if hygiene hasn’t deteriorated in our country. It is not the Pentagon, but the thousands of miles of damaged plumbing leaking all over the Island. It is not the CIA, but the inefficiency of a system that has not even managed to build new drainage and sewer networks. The responsibility doesn’t point overseas, but directly at us. No laboratory has created this virus to kill Cubans, it is our own material and sanitary collapse that keeps us from being able to control it.

At least that story for children, where the evil always came from abroad, no longer works. The tall story, which presented us as victims infected by American perfidy, is accepted only by the most naïve. Like children grow up, we have found that the Government has lied to us about dengue fever and that those were not paternalistic falsehoods, but sophisticated lies of the State.

Reporting is the Least of It

Big Brother stands as judge of journalistic "objectivity." [The text says that CPI can temporarily or permanently cancel press credentials for “lack of journalistic ethics… or objectivity.’”]

Big Brother stands as judge of journalistic “objectivity.” [The text says that CPI can temporarily or permanently cancel press credentials for “lack of journalistic ethics… or objectivity.’” Minrex is the Foreign Ministry]


A few years ago I met a foreign correspondent based in Cuba who related an absurd and revealing anecdote. The International Press Center (CPI) had called him in to warn him about the content of an article. Receiving the summons didn’t surprise him, because warning calls like that were a common practice of this agency in charge of registering and controlling foreign journalists living on the Island. Nor could he refuse to appear, because he depended on the CPI for his credentials to report on a nature reserve and even to interview a government minister. So there it was.

The reporter arrived at the centrally located building on 23rd Street, where the CPI is headquartered, and was led to an office with two annoyed looking men. After bringing him coffee and talking about other things, they got to the point. They reproached the journalist for a report where he had referred to Cuba as “the communist Island.” This was a huge surprise to the correspondent because previous warnings he’d received were for “reporting only on the bad things about the Cuban reality,” or “not treating the leaders of the Revolution with respect.” But he never imagined that this time he would be scolded for the complete opposite.

But yes, the censors who minutely examine the cables written by foreign agencies had not been at all pleased with the use of the adjective “communist” to characterize our country. “But the Communist Party governs here, right?” asked the incredulous reporter. “Yes, but you know the word looks bad, it doesn’t help us,” responded the higher-ranking official. The man stood there in shock for a few seconds while trying to comprehend what they were saying to him and think of a response other than laughing.

The correspondent knew that annoying the CPI could bring more than just a slap on the wrist. Also in the hands of this institution is permission for foreign journalists to import a car, rent a house and—at that time—even to buy an air conditioner for their bedroom. The dilemma for the reporter was to give in and not write “the communist Island” any more, or to engage in conflict with the institution, where he had everything to lose.

The mechanisms of control over the foreign press go far beyond warning calls from the CPI. Should a correspondent get married on the Island, start a family in this land, his objectivity comes into doubt. The intelligence organs know how to pull the strings of fear to cause damage or pressure to a loved one. Thus, they manage to temper the level of criticism by these correspondents “settled” in Cuba. The perks are also an attractive carrot to keep them from touching on certain thorny issues in their articles.

I know one foreign journalist who, every time she writes a press release about the Cuban dissidence, adds a paragraph where she declares, “the Government considers this opposition to be created and paid from Washington”… But her texts lack the phrase she could add to give the readers another point view, briefly communicating, “the Cuban dissidence considers the Island’s government a totalitarian dictatorship that has not been subjected to scrutiny at the ballot box.” This way, those who consult the press release could draw their own conclusions. Sadly, the objective of correspondents like her is not to inform, but to impose an opinion framework that is as stereotyped as it is false.

Press agencies need to strengthen and carefully review their codes of ethics when dealing with Cuba. They should control the time their representatives spend on the Island, because as the long years pass here emotional bonds are created that the regime can use for blackmail and pressure. An objective examination—every now and again—wouldn’t be a bad thing, given the possible coercion and Stockholm Syndrome their employees might suffer. The credibly of an information giant sometimes depends on whether a new imported car, or a beautiful young Cuban partner, is valued more than a commitment to journalism.

Take care foreign press agencies! Your representatives in these parts are always in danger of becoming hostages, first, and then collaborators, of the ruling regime.

My Mother and the Onions

Onion seller (14ymedio)

Onion seller (14ymedio)

14YMEDIO, Yoani Sanchez, 6 August 2014 – Who do I think about when I write? How does the reader imagine my texts come to me? Who do I want to shake up, move, reach… with my words? Such questions are common among those of us who devote ourselves to publishing our opinions and ideas. It is also a common question among those of us who engage in the informative work of the press. Defining the subject to which we turn our journalistic intentions is key to not falling into absurd generalizations, unintelligible language, or the tones of a training manual.

I do not write for academics or sages. Although I once graduated in Hispanic philology, the Latin declensions and text citations belong to a stage of my life I’ve left in the past. Nor do I think that my words reach people seated in the comfortable armchairs of power, nor specialists nor scholars who look for keys and messages in them. When I sit in front of the keyboard I think about people like my mother, who worked for more than 35 years in the taxi sector. It is to those people, tied to reality and dealing with adversity 24 hours a day, that I direct my words.

At times, when I talk to my mamá, I explain the need for Cuba to open itself up to democracy, to respect human rights and to establish freedom. She listens to me in silence for a while. After some minutes, she changes the conversation and tells me about the eggs that haven’t come, the bureaucrat who mistreated her, or the water leak at the corner of her house. Then, I ask her how much onions cost. My mother has to pay out three days worth of her pension to buy a pound of onions. I no longer have to say anything, she just concludes, “This country has to change.”