Days to Turn Off the TV

Woman watching TV (14ymedio)

Woman watching TV (14ymedio)Days

YOANI SÁNCHEZ , Havana, 29 July 2014 There are days when it’s better not to turn on the TV. Right now, just pushing a button can dump us in an avalanche of official propaganda for the birthdays of Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro. From July 28 to August 13, the boring national programming will be filled with the cult of personality, ideological kitsch and political sentimentality. Children’s choirs will sing to the “Eternal Commander,” people who barely saw them pass by on the street will share anecdotes, and endless biographical scenes will bombard us from all sides.

“Right now the news has no news,” complained a neighbor who wants to know what is happening in the world and can’t see anything but processions of red and olive green. I felt the same today with the first news of the day. An hour after it started I couldn’t extract the least national or international information, only praise for the “immortal warrior of the race of Bolivar,” and the “wise guerrilla who loved him like a son.” I tend to have little patience with this overdose of flattery, so I turned off the TV and began calling several friends so they could tell me what was going on here and there. At least we have “Lip Radio”!

The ruling party continues to confront the distribution of information, serials and movies in the so-called “combos” or “packets.” However, it makes no real changes in its television programming to attract young people. Instead, the small screen becomes a loudspeaker for slogans and boring material that viewers find annoying and reject. Thus, they can never regain the ground they have lost to illegal satellite dishes, content copied onto USB sticks, and hard disks full of documentaries. If they continue with the ideological excesses of recent days, official TV will, very soon, become a monologue that few listen to.

Streets Without Protests

Protestors in the streets of Vienna (Luz Escobar)

Protestors in the streets of Vienna (Luz Escobar)

A friend sent me photos of a demonstration in the streets of Vienna in support of the Palestinians. I also received—from all over the world—images with signs of solidarity or rejection of one or the other of the parties implicated in the conflict in Gaza. Many take sides and demonstrate it, be it a tweet, a way of dressing, a shout or a public protest. In Cuba, however, only the official press and institutions may speak in headlines and statements. In the 14 days of the latest bloody confrontation between Israel and Hamas, no spontaneous demonstration on the subject has taken place in our public spaces.

Freedom can be simulated, replaced by false statistics of well-being and justice, but someone always puts it to the test. That public protests on national and international issues don’t happen in our territory is evidence of the lack of rights and social autonomy we endure. It is this same gagging of public speech that prevents organizations like those of the LGBT community from protesting the arrival on the island of Vladimir Putin, considered one of the most homophobic presidents on the planet today. It is also a bad sign that today, during the arrival of Xi Jinping, no one is seen outside the airport demanding the release of Chinese dissidents or asking for greater environmental protections in that country.

I repeat, freedom can be simulated, but its lack is obvious in a minute, its immense absence. So among my friends—one of whom has prepared his keffiyeh, while the other has a Star of David tattooed on his arm—cannot march through the streets of Havana showing their preferences or outrage. No one is allowed, of their own initiative, to denounce the deaths, the blood, the pain. Thus, we will not see pictures from Havana with the streets filled with people outraged by the events in Gaza.

Football Hangover

The World Cup on Cuban TV (14ymedio)

The World Cup 2014 on Cuban TV (14ymedio)

Gone is the last game, the German goal, Götze’s hands raising the 2014 Brazil World Cup. Gone are the get togethers with friends, wrapped in the flag of Italy or Costa Rica, to go see the games in some public place. Some of the excitement remains, it’s true, but the roar that ran through Havana when the ball entered the goal in Rio De Janeiro or Sal Paulo is now just a memory. The painted faces, the arms raised in imitation of the spectators from their seats, and the euphoria shared with millions all over the globe. The football party is over, now comes the hangover.

The hangover is a return to real life. Back to the store shelves and a realization that the shortages are greater than they were four weeks ago. Learning that yesterday a hundred Ladies in White were arrested for trying to pay tribute to the victims of the sinking of the 13-de-Marzo tugboat. There is no catchy tune performed by the famous to accompany this hard existence, rather the rumor of friends who warn us of “what’s out there”… “dengue fever, cholera, Chikungunya and even giant African snails.”

Like a kick to the head—and without failing to miss the opponent—reality returns. There are no arms to stop this fast ball that is daily life, unstoppable and painful. We are back to our world without lights, without loudspeakers that roar GOOOOAL, and without that familiarity created by competitive sports. In short, we live in “a world” where the rules are strict, the referee implacable, and there are no prizes.

Monday morning, I already saw them, as if waking from a dream. They were the hundreds of thousands of Cubans, especially young people, who were immersed in the passion of the Cup as if they themselves had kicked the ball. Today they realize they aren’t Germans, Dutch or Argentines and that a difficult Cuba awaits them on the other side of their doors. A Cuba that in four weeks has not stopped in time, waiting for the whistle to resume its course, rather it has deteriorated. Will they be willing to change the rules of the game of this reality? Or will they wait for the next reason to escape in front of the TV or the ball?

Bowling Pins, Sweets and Dangers

Putin and Raul Castro together on Cuban television. (14ymedio)

Putin and Raul Castro together on Cuban television. (14ymedio)

“These are the last sweets!” The cry could be the simple proclamation of a candy seller, but I heard it twenty-three years ago at my high school in the countryside and it was the first evidence I had of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The person shouting was Olga, a student who resold what the wives of the Russian technicians in Alamar gave her. She was the bridge between our Cuban money, worth less every day, and a series of products such as candy and canned goods “Made in USSR.” I remember this teenager, who warned us of the coming of shortages, like a blind Tiresias, alerting us to the adiós of the “bowling pins” (as we called the Russians).

The old relationship with the Kremlin comes to mind now, with Vladimir Putin’s visit to Cuba. We have seen the official delegation on national television with its businesslike demeanor in suits and ties, no longer speaking of Marxism-Leninism or the dictatorship of the proletariat. They look different, but so much the same. The same glance from above they once had when they knew our island was just a small domino in the game of power. They come looking for alliances, to define the contours of those blocks they are reassembling – right before our eyes – in a new return of the Cold War. We are one step away from returning to our old status as a satellite, diminished before Moscow’s power, its oil, the debt relief it just granted us.

Not a single official commentator has hinted at the dangers entailed in this approach, nor to the Russian government’s need to use Latin America as a diplomatic “launching pad” against its old enemy, the United States. In the midst of this renewed confrontation among the great powers, we are trapped as a disposable and negotiable part, as the case may be. The risk is such that I again remember Olga and the last Soviet candies she offered us in that dorm. Those sweets in extinction predicted an end, the goodies being announced today, like a new airport and possible Russian investment in the Port of Mariel project, compromise our future. You don’t have to be blind, nor Tiresias, to realize it.

12 July 2014

Are We In Transition?

Seminario-transiciAn-espaAola-Madrid_CYMIMA20140709_0006_13

Yoani Sánchez, Madrid, 9 July 2014 – Right now I am taking part, along with several Cuban activists, in a seminar on the Spanish transition being held in Madrid. Organized by the Association of Ibero-Americans for Freedom and the Spanish Transition Foundation at the Casa de America, the event includes the participation of nine activists from within the Island from many different sectors, such as law, citizenship, human rights and journalism. An opportunity for us to meet with each other without the police cordons or acts of repudiation.

While I listened to several speakers, I remembered when, in 2011, I watched the series The Transition, with the voice of Victoria Prego. Coincidentally, the morning I started to watch the excellent scenes of that documentary and the analysis that accompanied it, a friend from Madrid visited me. She looked at the TV screen and said to me, “I experienced many of those events, but at that time I didn’t know we were in transition.” Her phrase has stayed with me as solace and hope all these years. Today, in the Casa de America, I remembered it.

Are we Cubans living in the transition? Just asking this question is enough to annoy some people and excite others. A transition – the experts and analysts tell me – needs more political, social and economic evidence. A word of such magnitude requires real substance, not just desires, others warn me, also with very good arguments. If it turns out that an irreversible and defining change has occurred within Cubans, could we see that as the transition? In this case, the micro look beats out the macro analysis.

Every day I meet more people who are no longer collaborating, who no longer believe, who no longer support the system. I also stumble upon people who aren’t interested in watching official TV, or taking part in official events, or accepting official perks. What do we call that? May the transition theorists forgive me, but if that is not a change, what is it? “Pre-transition” perhaps?

It’s a Long Way to Cyprus

Yoani Sánchez, Havana, 3 July 2014 — Yesterday on the bus, with the summer heat and after the long wait at the stop, two men commented loudly on their annoyance. “This sure doesn’t happen in Cyprus!” one said to the other, and laughter rang out all over the bus. He was referring to a monologue by the comedian Nelson Gudín, which has become a viral phenomenon on the alternative distribution network for videos. The actor plays a drunk who, among many other absurdities, complains about the space given in the national media to relating the problems of other countries, while remaining silent on ours. The old technique of “the mote in another’s eye…” which is one of the pillars of the official Cuban press.

Unemployment, corruption, economic cuts and social unrest… in Cyprus… were a topic of discussion and analysis by the panelists on the Roundtable show on several occasions. To underpin the axiom that “it’s hell out there and paradise in here,” the unpopular TV program placed a special emphasis on the difficulties being experienced by this member state of the European Union. So much time and so many reflections were dedicated to it, that the character played by Gudín ended up commenting, “Huh?… I didn’t know we were living in Cyprus?” The sarcastic phrase has almost become a slogan on our streets.

Just let an official delay some paperwork, for an ironic voice to note, “this guy surely comes from Cyprus.” That lady who is out of work due to economic adjustments, “is probably Cypriot,” her acquaintances will comment maliciously. Not to mention the empty shelves because of shortages; “It shouldn’t happen in Havana, only in Nicosia,” a frustrated customer claimed a few days ago. “At this rate, we’ll know more about the antagonisms between the Greeks and the Turks than about our own national problems,” a university professor pointed out to his students.

By the work and grace of the ideologues of the official press our principal preoccupations no longer take the form of an island in the Caribbean, but of this other one in the far off Mediterranean, where all the problems are concentrated.

Carlitos’ Body Language

Yoani Sánchez, Havana, 1 July 2014 – I remember him well, leaning over the table with head bowed and a vacant look. Carlitos was barely twenty and his every gesture carried the reluctance of someone who had lived too much. The young man ended up emigrating – like so many others – and I suppose there is little time in his new life to let the hours pass lying around bored. However, I continue to see this physical image of apathy and a lack of personal projects everywhere I look. It’s as if the body is speaking and, with its posture, it is saying what so many mouths remain silent about.

Someday when a Cuban body language glossary is prepared, it will include this pose of “falling into the abyss of nothingness.” This appearance of already being defeated, like Carlitos, that so many young people and not so young people present in this country. It’s the nuisance of moving your hands, the droopy eyelids, the permanent drowsiness and a certain relaxation of the lips which barely articulate lazy words, when they are not reduced to simple monosyllables. That the clock is ticking doesn’t matter, life passes and it doesn’t matter, the country slips through our fingers and people couldn’t care less.

While the heroes stand proudly on their marble pedestals, reality finds us bent over, tired, throwing ourselves on the first piece of furniture we come across. Is it perhaps the rebellion of indolence? The muffled scream of disinterest? I don’t know, but everywhere there are these poses that betray a lack of personal and national dreams.