Are We In Transition?

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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.

Google Comes to Havana!

Google_CYMIMA20140628_0010_18Yoani Sánchez, Havana, 28 June 2014 – Have you ever tried to explain Google to someone who doesn’t know what it is? This happened to me a few days ago with a neighbor girl, barely 10, who asked me, “What’s a search engine?” I didn’t want to get deep into technology so I didn’t tell her anything about the algorithm these services use to organize information, nor did I talk about the “spiders” that travel the entire web to search sites, and much less of the race for positions on their lists, which obsesses so many. Instead, I explained it to her with a reference she could understand: “Google is like the magic mirror in fairy tales. You can ask it what you want and it will give you thousands of possible answers.”

Last night, Google knocked on our door. This isn’t a metaphor, the searcher came to find us. There were several representatives of the most popular of the search engines, peering into our lives and work. Faced with them, we couldn’t resort to so-called text tags, “keywords” and strict page ranks. These were human being, giving big hugs, laughing and curiously exploring the home of our technological inventions and our hairless dog. Jared Cohen, Brett Perlmutter and Dan Keyserling cheerfully climbed to the fourteenth floor of our building and shared with us our journalistic endeavor lacking in Internet, but with a strong commitment to today’s Cuban reality.

I asked if they had connected to the web from any public place.  “Slow, very slow”… they explained. Then we started talking about the future, their commitment to Cuban internauts, and the relief of knowing they were aware of the information difficulties we are facing on the island. Before that we had talked with Eric Schmidt and understood that something of the sharpness of his eyes and the certainty of his words could already be guessed in the simple wisdom of Google’s homepage.

It was a technological night without technology. No one took out their cellphones to check the web – it’s not possible in Cuba – and it didn’t occur to anyone to show us the latest doodle, nor to tell us in figures the scale of the company in which they work. We had the immense good fortune of standing in front of the magic mirror, but we didn’t ask questions nor did we want answers, we just described who we are and where we are going.

‘Casting’ for Employment

Yoani Sánchez, Havana, 25 June 2014 – Eugenia lost her job of thirty years in an office of the Ministry of Transport. She was left “available,” according to the declaration of her bosses, before they offered her a job as a bricklayer. Reluctant to lay bricks and mix mortar, she launched herself on the private market to see what she could find. Her possibilities were few. She doesn’t speak any other languages, she’s never touched a computer, and she doesn’t have the “good looks” of youth.

A friend signed her up on a digital site to look for work. “We don’t accept people with dentures,” said the first interviewer when she went for a job cleaning a house rented to foreigners. The owner of the place wanted “a clean woman who doesn’t talk very much, doesn’t smoke and looks strong.” She hired someone else and Eugenia decided to invest in her physique.

She dyed her hair, bought new shoes, and made the rounds of several cafes and restaurants in Central Havana. Over fifty, almost all the places responded the same, “we already have people in the kitchen and you won’t do for a waitress.” Eugenia noticed that behind the bars or waiting tables in the new privately run places there are almost always young thin women with prominent busts.

“You are from Havana, right?” she was asked at a place where they contracted with people to wash and iron. Eugenia was born in Holguin and spent nearly her entire life in the Cuban capital, but the owner of the laundry said she wouldn’t do. “We want Havana people, so there will be no problems with relatives who come and want to stay in the house.”

A neighbor told her about another possibility, caring for an old man. He was retired military and could barely get around in a wheel chair. “You can’t say anything bad about the Revolution in front of him,” warned the children of the old man, who had to feed him, change his clothes and read him the Granma newspaper. In the end, Eugenia also failed to get that job.

For a few days she managed to care for a child, but it was only a week because, “if you can’t sing and don’t know any children’s games my son gets bored,” the mother of the little boy told her. Eugenia only knows how to fill out forms, attach stamps, and nod her head affirmatively during the long meetings that were held at her company. She can’t compete in today’s job market.

Yesterday she heard about a job scrubbing in a private restaurant. “You can’t leave the kitchen during work hours,” the cook told her. “It’s better if the customers don’t see you,” he repeated, before confirming that she was “on a trial basis.”

Ah “Maria”!

Yoani Sanchez, HAVANA | 20 June 2014 – Livio went on a trip and left his friends in charge of the most precious thing in his life. It wasn’t a child, or a pet, or even one of those home appliances so idolized in Cuba. The “apple of his eye” was a marijuana bush, grown, watered and ready to be made into the first cigarettes. Oblivious to the care such a plant requires, the astonished “babysitters” chose to put it behind the glass of a window, away from the eyes of neighbors and potential informers. It survived, but on returning from abroad its owner swore he would never again leave his precious crop in the hands of neophytes.

This is not an isolated case. Marijuana — which we also call “María” — is a familiar presence in the life of any Cuban. Although the media does not talk about it, it doesn’t need advertising to be popular. It is smelled at parties, seen in the air at some public concerts, and detected in the half-closed eyes of more than a few who appear on national television itself. It is a fact, it is here, and not only through the “bales” that come in along the coasts—according the official press bad things always come from outside—but also as a “made in Cuba” product, with the flavor of red earth grown among the palm trees or in the fields of marabou weed.

Havana’s musical scene knows its cousin “María” very well. Some can’t imagine the act of composition without this eternal friend who “whispers the lyrics in my ear.” The parents of those “hooked” are relieved, thinking that at least it’s not cocaine. “Softer, more therapeutic, happier,” they say to comfort themselves. However, behind this apparent social acceptance of the herb is hidden a debate too-long delayed. Legalize or penalize? That’s the dilemma. A question that simply asking publicly puts you on the side of the enemy.

Those very old men who govern us… have prevented discussions of modernity. I want to live in a society that questions the therapeutic use or the strict prohibition of “María.” I dream of living in a country where my son, age 19, can participate, in turn, in the social debate about whether to legalize or penalize the herb that Livio cares for almost with devotion.

Not speaking of marijuana doesn’t uproot it from our land. Looking away doesn’t prevent thousands of cigarettes made from its leaves ending up between the lips of your children, my children, the children of others. Why don’t we set aside so much prudery and start talking about what we’re going to do with it? With its serrated leaves, so slender and striking… that right now are growing on countless terraces and in gardens and water tanks converted into planting beds all over this Island.

Let’s see if we can stop “smoking” the cigarette of indifference and talk… about what we need to talk about.

“Bullying” in Cuba?

14ymedio, Yoani Sánchez, Havana | 20 June 2014 – Damaris is almost forty and has several scars on her face. They were made by a 5th grade classmate with a hair clip. They were in the middle of class and a dispute over the ownership of a pen led the opponent to scream, “I’ll be waiting for you at four-thirty!” This is the worst threat a student can receive in a Cuban elementary school. The phrase lets you know that when school gets out strength and supremacy will be proved with fists or fingernails.

For Yosniel it was worse. He jumped from a water tank at the People’s Republic of Romania High School, after months of ridicule about the size of his head from his classmates in the dorm. He fell on concrete and no effort at resuscitation was able to save him. The next day, during the funeral, the very students who had ridiculed him offered their condolences to the bereaved family in the impoverished Romerillo neighborhood.

However, the problem touches both the poor and the better-off. The cold metal of a knife pierced the heart of Adrian, also a high school boarding student, because another student, stronger than he, decided he wanted his Converse sneakers. The parents of the dead boy were in the military, but even so they could not understand how the schools that were supposed to form the “New Man” could end up functioning with the same bullying as in prisons.

Cecilia, meanwhile, was always one of the ones who hit… not one of those who was hit. She would choose which uniform skirt she wanted, searching the lockers of the weaker and smaller students. One day she met her match in a skinny little gap-toothed girl who – with a knife improvised from a hacksaw blade – slit her face from ear to ear.

Abuse at school, bullying, is an issue that is rarely discussed in the national media, but it affects hundreds, even thousands, of students across the country. Among the most alarming characteristics of this problem is the complicity or indifference on the part of the teachers. Often the teachers support “these tough guys and girls” in order to control the rest of the students. The result is an institutional validation of a structure of bravado and abuse.

How can it be reported? No one knows. There is no telephone number that a student victim of bullying can call. There is no Ministry of Education circular protecting the victims in these cases. The parents usually respond to their children’s complaints of abuse with “hit him harder” or “show them who you are.” The teachers don’t want to get in the middle of a dispute and many school directors respond defensively, “You can imagine, I no longer know what to do with this boy.”

The truth is that the drama of school abuse is not reported, debated, questioned… meanwhile, the many Cecilias who are out there continue taking smaller children’s uniforms, cutting classmate’s faces with a blade, or mocking – to the point of suicide – the head size of another.