Go Bankrupt or Prosper…

For those who grew up in a country where the state, for decades, has been the monopoly employer, to be forced to make a living independently is like jumping into the void. Thus, workers are overcome with fear, lately, as they await the publication of the dreaded list of names of those who will lose their jobs. Not only do fears flourish, but also opportunism and favoritism. The decision of who will keep their places and who will not is made by the directors of each workplace and we already know about cases where it is not the most capable to remain, but those closest to the director. Ironically, the positions they are trying to keep are underpaid, and the loss of a quarter of the workforce does not mean — for now — a salary increase for those who stay.

Downsizing meetings occur in every workplace, even in such sensitive sectors as Public Health. These meetings decide something more important than monthly salaries or belonging to a certain company or institution. It is also a time when people’s eyes are opened to a different Cuba, where the premise of full employment is not proclaimed to the four winds and where working for oneself appears as a bleak and uncertain option. Some exchange the white coat for barber’s scissors, or the syringe for an oven where they bake pizza and bread. They will learn about the inevitable march from economic independence to political independence, they will go bankrupt or prosper, they will lie on their tax returns or honestly report how much they have earned. In the end, they will embark on a new and difficult path, where Papa state cannot support them, but nor will he have the power to punish them.

The Graveyard Police

The village graveyards are picturesque and sad: whitewashed tombs with the sun beating down all day on their stones, and the dirt roads packed hard by the feet of the mourners. But there is a graveyard in the town of Banes that has hosted unusual cries in the last twelve months. Crosses around which intolerance has no shame, where it has not lowered its voice as one does before a headstone. For several days, moreover, the entrance has been guarded as if the living could control a space dedicated to the dead. Dozens of police officers wanting to keep Orlando Zapata Tamayo’s friends and acquaintances from coming to commemorate the first anniversary of his death.

Those who now patrol the tomb of this bricklayer know very well that they can never accuse him–as they have others–of being a member of the oligarchy seeking to recover his property. This mestizo born after the triumph of the Revolution was not the author of a political platform nor did he take up arms against the government. Yet he has become a disturbing symbol for those who, themselves, cling to the material possessions that come to them through power: swimming pools, yachts, whiskey, bulging bank accounts and mansions all over the country. A man raised under political indoctrination escaped through the door of death, leaving them on the other side of the threshold, weaker, failing more than ever.

Sometimes the end of person cements his name in history forever. This is the case with Mohammed Bouazizi, the young Tunisian who set himself on fire outside a government building because the police confiscated the fruit he sold in a square. The consequences of his immolation were completely unpredictable, the “domino effect” he set off in the Arab world immense. The death of a Cuban on 23 February 2010 has created an uncomfortable anniversary for the government. Right now, when Raul Castro is about to celebrate his three years at the helm of the nation, many are asking what will happen in Banes, in the small cemetery where the dead are more strictly guarded than prison inmates.

Though they surround as much as they can, this week the political police can’t stop people–from within their homes–invoking the name of the deceased Zapata Tamayo much more often than the long string of titles of the General-cum-President.

“Comrade” Granma

He would often raise his fist while screaming in his high-pitched voice, his face flushed, at whomever he disagreed with. And so would the newspaper Granma, as if a breath of life had turned it into a person; as if a rare spell could make the paper body of the tabloid turn itself into flesh and bones. He would dress in a plaid shirts, proudly displaying the sharp creases of his clothes achieved with successive sprays of starch. The daily paper of the only party permitted in Cuba was of an undefined age and a nineteenth century mentality, displaying his medals, constantly talking about feats he never actually accomplished. He never listened to others, because his interminable tirade drowned out criticism, contrary ideas, the least hint of differences. He behaved like a grouchy man who couldn’t even converse with his own children, who had seen all those whom he once loved escape from his side.

Granma, like some I know, would turn his face if someone close to him bought a little food on the black market. But he would scarf down every last bite without asking where the piece of potato or the slice of bread on the table came from. His large-type editorials would maniacally scream vacuous slogans whenever he knew the neighbors were listening. He would appeal–with great frequency–to betrayal and intrigue. His boring triumphalist reports would wrap themselves in conformist phrases delivered to the desperate faces of those around him. The same newspaper which still, today, has never published a color photo, would shroud in gray boring platitudes and unbridled rage. He would sniff out the tiniest illegalities of survival and denounce them with the same urgency as his pages now publish attacks and lies.

The “comrade” embodied in Granma would be one of those human beings whom–I don’t know about you–I would never invite to my house.

Egypt 2.0

Darkness and light in Tahrir Square, a red phosphorescence glow interrupted by the camera flashes and the glowing screens of mobile phones. I wasn’t there, and yet I know how each one of the Egyptians felt, gathered last night in downtown Cairo. I, who have never been able to shout and cry in public, overwhelmed by happiness that the cycle of authoritarianism under which I was born has ended, I know I would do the same until I had no voice left, I would hug everyone, I would feel light as if a huge burden had fallen from my shoulders. I have not experienced a revolution, much less a citizen revolution, but this week, despite the caution of the official news, I have the sense that the Suez Canal and the Caribbean Sea are not so far apart, not so different.

While young Egyptians were organizing on Facebook, we were watching with consternation the leaked chat of a cybercop, for whom social networks are “the enemy.” This censor of kilobytes and his bosses have every right to fear these virtual sites, where as individuals we can meet outside the controls of the State, the Party and the ideologues. Reading the words of the young Egyptian Wael Ghonim, “If you want to liberate a country, give it Internet!”, I understand more clearly the secrecy our authorities display regarding whether or not they will allow us to connect to the Web. They have become accustomed to having an information monopoly, of regulating what comes to us and reinterpreting for us what happens both within and beyond our national frontiers. They now know, because Egypt has taught them, that every step they let us take into cyberspace brings us a step closer to Tahir Square, leads us quickly to a plaza that trembled and a dictator who resigned.

Information Science Fair 2011 on the Island of the Disconnected

Currently on display at Pabexpo, the exhibition center located in the wealthiest part of the city, are computer-related products created within and outside our country. Guests from all over are brought together there, including a large group of foreigners whom I imagine are more interested in taking a trip on our Paleolithic technology than doing business with local firms. The Kaspersky Group, for example, is showing a version of its well-known anti-virus program, developed in conjunction with the national company Segurmática. Everything has been made to look like an exhibition of this type anywhere in the world, were it not for one detail: This is the Island of the Disconnected.

Already well into the year 2011, inhabitants of the “Cuban archipelago” cannot buy a bus, train or airline ticket on the web, we don’t know the sensation of managing our bank accounts online, and purchasing a product through the computer screen is something we have seen only in foreign films. Still, today, my compatriots have never handled bureaucratic paperwork via email, not even the simplest of requests for one’s own birth certificate. Don’t even talk about reserving some vacation on the flashy webpages of the travel agencies Cubatur or Islazul. Among my hundreds of friends, none have managed–from here–to recharge their own mobile phones on those portals that offer the service, without having to stand in the long lines at the ETECSA office. We are a people who have no opportunity to pay our bills through cyberspace and who live as software pirates faced with the impossibility of purchasing licensed versions.

Here we live at a stage that is more characteristic of the first half of the twentieth century than it is of the twenty-first. Thus, the Information Science Fair appears as a glimpse into the future, a shop window that displays to others what we haven’t even tasted. After the visitors return home, they will praise the skill sets of the Cuban computer scientists and remember the tasty Mojito they were given at the farewell party. Meanwhile, we remain in the twilight of the disconnected, turning on autistic computers unable to connect to others. We dream–it’s true–of one day filling out a form on the Internet where a phrase will confirm for us: “Thank you for your purchase, your ticket to Guantanamo has been reserved. Have a nice trip!”

Arches of Defeat

Chunks of concrete, fragments of roads leading nowhere, bridges that don’t link to any shore. Monuments to urban paralysis located along the national highway, unfinished structures that dream of feeling the weight of trucks and motorcycles. People crowd under these unfinished overpasses waiting for transport to take them to some other side, taking advantage of the shade from these arches of defeat, these enormous structures that serve only as umbrellas, the most expensive in the world. With railings that have never felt the warmth of a hand, the unfinished bridges in my country make a face and stick out their tongues, reminding us of the atrophy of our urban development, our ramshackle roads.

Whenever I pass under their deteriorated masses I wonder: What good are these truncated roads without cars? What is the reason for being of these incomplete giants that go nowhere? Were they built when the plan was to fill this Island with highways, like a living backbone branching out in all directions? Several decades later, they are still disconnected from the traffic network, accessible only from above, ironic hosts to vultures and lizards warming themselves on their columns. Monoliths to the immobility of people who, instead of new highways, arterials, roundabouts and avenues, have seen their truncated bridges deteriorate and begin to crack without ever having felt the rolling of a tire.

The Blackout Ends

Seated in the armchair of a hotel with my laptop open, I note the slow blinking of the WiFi transmitter and watch the stern faces of the custodians. This could be one more day trying to enter my own blog with an anonymous proxy, jumping over the censorship with a few tricks that let me look at the forbidden. On the bottom of the screen a banner announces that I’m navigating at 41 kilobytes a second. Joking with a friend I warn her we’d better hold onto our hair so it won’t get messed up from “speeding.” But the narrow band doesn’t matter much this February afternoon. I’m here to cheer myself up, not to get depressed all over again by the damned situation of an Internet undermined by filters. I have come to see if the long night of censorship no longer hangs over Generation Y. With just a click I manage to enter the site that, since March of 2008, has not been visible from a public place. I’m so surprised I shout and the camera watching from the ceiling records the fillings in my teeth as I laugh uncontrollably.

After three years, my virtual space is again sighted from inside Cuba.

I don’t know the reasons for the end to this blockade, although I can speculate that the celebration of the 2011 Havana International Computer Science Fair has brought many foreign guests and it is better to show them an image of tolerance, of supposed openings in the realm of citizen expression. It is also possible that after having proved that blocking a website only makes it more attractive to internauts, the cyberpolice have chosen to exhibit the forbidden fruit they so demonized in recent months. If it’s because of a technical glitch that will soon be corrected, once again throwing shadows over my virtual diary, then there will be plenty of time to loudly denounce it. But for the moment, I make plans for the platforms www.vocescubanas.com and www.desdecuba.com to enjoy a long stay with us.

This is a citizen victory over the demons of control. We have taken back what belongs to us. These virtual places are ours, and they will have to learn to live with what they can no longer deny.