‘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.

Super Dad

Yoani Sánchez, Havana, 15 June 2014 – Ricardo has raised his two daughters alone. One August morning he woke up and his wife had left. Later he learned she’d been intercepted on the high seas and spent months at the Guantanamo Naval Base before arriving in the United States. At the time, the youngest of the girls still slept in a cradle and the oldest was learning her first letters.

They had hard times. The maternal grandmother’s aggressiveness didn’t respect paternal custody. “These girls need a mother,” she shouted angrily, every time she saw him. Nor was it easy for him in the village. A man abandoned can go unnoticed in Havana, but in the provinces it’s a constant joke, the talk of all the neighbors.

He had to face it all alone. He had to explain to his daughters what it means to start menstruating, and also the importance of using a condom. He had to stand in long lines at the pharmacy to buy sanitary pads and sell some of his belongings to buy them extra cotton every month. He specialized in ironing uniform skirts, mending stockings, and removing nits from their hair. At first his braids were loose at the top and fell apart in a few minutes, but later he was a total master.

He never went back to sleep in the morning. There was always one of his “women” who had to get up early and he made breakfast and woke them up. One of them says her “papi” makes the best peas in the whole country, while the other still asks him to edit what she writes.

He doesn’t speak ill of their mother. He prefers to build up their hopes that somewhere in California there is a sad-looking lady who is waiting to reunite with her daughters. But the letters don’t come more than once a decade and the last time she was more worried about her own unemployment problems than the girls she left in Cuba.

Ricardo could have disengaged and done what so many others do. Cuban society never would have blamed him for sending his daughters to their grandmother’s house. After all, the popular refrain would justify it, asserting that “a father is nobody.” His case, however, is not so rare. It happens that his story is lost among so many of our everyday emergencies.

Today he went out early, without making any noise, wanting to get a haircut and buy a little rum to celebrate Father’s Day. It’s Sunday, “the girls” will sleep late and the kitchen will already smell of the pot where the beans are cooking.

One Less Thread in the Social Tapestry

Yoani Sánchez, Havana, 12 June 2014 — In a country where there are so few spaces for debate, the loss of any one of them is a tragedy. The departure of Roberto Veiga and Lenier Gonzalez from the magazine Lay Space leaves us with even fewer opportunities for debate. Their work was characterized by its willingness to address controversial and difficult topics in the pages of a publication which, in recent years, became an obligatory reference. With a respectful spirit, a true concern for the nation, and the ability to present arguments, these editors opened a reflective space that we, their readers, fear will be missed from now on.

Differences in ideas should not lead us to personal confrontation. A lesson that should be learned by more than one person who takes ideological contradictions as a pretext to channel their lowest passions. So, despite my points of difference with many of the ideas of Veiga and Gonzalez, and especially with their category of “loyal opposition,” I have always respected their work and considered it to be of great value. The public existence of their voices improved the quality of discussions within the Island, encouraging different points of view – which is always a good thing – and brought together political tendencies that seem to run along contrary paths. I regret that they never accepted invitations to also participate in non-official debates within the country. I hope, now they have been “liberated” from their jobs, that we will be able to exchange ideas outside the protection of the Cátedra Félix Varela.

Cuba loses and I can’t imagine who wins with this dismissal. The next archbishop of Havana? Is the church so fickle? One day they snatched the magazine Vitral from us, to turn it into a shadow of the multicolored light it once was. Now, it seems, the same will happen with Lay Space. I am not convinced by the declarations of its current director who assures us that the work of the journal will continue. I believe deeply in the stamp each human being imprints on a work, and in the case of this publication it’s clear that Veiga and Gonzalez were its principal sources of inspiration.

The ragged tapestry of our civil society just suffered the tearing of another thread.

Cold Kisses Under the Tropical Sun

The fear of not being able to leave, of remaining locked on the island, is shared by many of my compatriots. Those who have never traveled fear they will grow old without ever knowing what’s on the other side of the sea. Cubans living abroad are not exempt from this fear. Many of them, when they visit the Island, have a recurring nightmare that they will not be allowed to board the plane when they leave. It is precisely this feeling overwhelms the main character of the novel “Eskimo Kiss,” by the novelist and journalist Manuel Pereira.

The book, as yet unpublished, describes the experiences of a man who travels to the land he left twelve years ago. His mother’s advanced age compels him return to the “country of mirages,” as he calls it. His arrival is accompanied by the panic of being trapped and that apprehension is mixed with the constant feeling of being watched. To him, his country is “like a moustrap” during the four days of the “humanitarian entry permit” the authorities have given him.

It is not only that perception of confinement that overwhelms the character of Pereira, but the difference between what he remembered from his homeland and what it really was. The distance, years and emotions tend to put a patina of sweetness and harmony on loved ones and everyday life that is often shattered when they are reunited. Nor does a nation fading away, in a moral freefall, do much to help allay the impression of suffocation that runs through the pages of this book. “Will he be able to escape?” we ask ourselves from the moment we start reading. To get to the answer we have to immerse ourselves in the reality—as well known as it is absurd—in which we ourselves are trapped.

The Free Territory of Skype

An article has been added to the saga against information technologies maintained by the official press. Last Thursday a report against phone fraud left many Juventude Rebelde (Rebel Youth) readers feeling that cellphones are a source of endless problems. To the barrage of accusations about the destabilizing plans that arrive via text messages, and the collapse of networks caused by titles that travel from one cellphone to another, we can now add the “personal profit” of those who use tricks to pay less for a call or for a text message abroad.

Every crime of fraud or embezzlement is legally and morally contemptible. However, the context in which these infractions are committed should be taken into account. We live under an absolute state monopoly of telecommunications. The only phone company in the country, ETECSA, has no competitors in its field and thus sets its prices much higher than the tariffs common in the rest of the world. A one minute call overseas costs the average worker about two days wages. With such a large population having emigrated, it’s easy to imagine the Island’s need to communicate with the rest of the world.

To this must be added the limited and scarce Internet access. Without any new facilities for services such as Skype, many prefer to resort to fraudulent practices rather than to give up calling other parts of the world. Penalizing the offenders who resort to tricks like voice bypass will not resolve the problem. I don’t imagine a lady in her sixties, with a son who emigrated, risks being fined for phone fraud when she can pay barely pennies to call via the Internet. Pushing a population into crime, and then condemning them for engaging in it, seems to me, at the very least, pure cynicism.

Yoani Sánchez, Havana, 31 May 2014 | 14ymedio