The Cuban Railroad Died

Railroad in Cuba. (EFE)

Railroad in Cuba. (EFE)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, 29 January 2016 – My father is a train engineer. It has been decades since he drove a train, long years in which he hasn’t sounded the whistle of a locomotive while passing through a village with children running alongside the line. However, this still agile retiree originally from Matanzas still marks the 29th of January on the calendar and says “it is my day.” The day still smells of iron braking on iron, and has the rush of the platform, where some leave and others say goodbye.

The date honors the guild established in 1975, during the finishing of the first stretch of the central line. At the celebration Fidel Castro operated a Soviet locomotive, a moment that is still a source of amusement among elderly train engineers. “Everything was ready and he didn’t even get the credit of making that mass move,” says an old conductor in his eighties. The event, more about politics than railroads, was enough to let the imposed anniversary go.

The 19th of November should be the date for those who carry the iron serpent circulating in our blood. The day the first rail link in Cuba was completed, between Havana and Bejucal, in 1837, should get all the credit to earn itself a celebration that goes beyond the fanfare of the politicians and the headlines of the official press. In those nearly 17 miles (27.3 kilometers) of the initial line, a lineage began that refuses to die.

Now, when I stand in front of the lines at La Coubre terminal in Havana and observe the disaster that is rail transport in Cuba today, I ask myself if the era of the “sons of the railroad” will come to an end. Old cars, unsafe, accidents, delays, long lines to buy a ticket, luggage thefts, the stench of the toilets… and an iron fence that isolates the platform and those going aboard from those who are saying goodbye.

The Cuban railroad died. There is not much to celebrate on this day.

The One-sided Paralysis of the Cuban Press

Television remains under a strict monopoly of the Communist Party to sustain a biased editorial line does not represent the national complexity.

Television remains under a strict monopoly of the Communist Party to sustain a biased editorial line does not represent the national complexity.

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 5 January 2015 – Sometimes I wish I lived in the country they show on television. This hopeful nation of rose-colored dreams presented by the official press. A place of props and slogans, where factory production exceeds goals and employees are declared “workplace heroes.” In this Cuba, bouncing off the antennas to reach our small screens, there is no room for sickness, pain, frustration or impatience.

The official Cuban press has tried to approach the country’s reality in recent years. Several young faces appear on TV programs to report on administrative negligence, poor services, or consumer complaints about bureaucratic paperwork. But even still, state journalism continues to be a long way from objectivity and respect for the truth.

Television, radio and newspapers are maintained under strict monopoly of the Communist Party, and not only because they are ideologically subordinated, but also because they are financed from the state coffers – money that belongs to all Cubans – money that they use to sustain a biased editorial line that does not reflect the national complexity.

The topics covered by the journalists of this partisan press represent the interests of an ideology and a group in power, not of the entire country. They never dare, for example, in their reporting, to question the authorities, nor the current political system, nor the organs of State Security nor the activities of the police, among other taboo subjects.

However, where the official press most betrays the precepts of balance and impartial information is in the testimonies they broadcast, in the voices they give space to and the opinions they express. By the grace of journalistic censorship, access to the microphone is granted only to those who agree with the government and applaud the actions of its leaders.

They never interview someone with a difference of opinion, or someone who believes the country should take other political or economic paths. Unanimity continues to fill the front pages and the news broadcasts, although for a long time now loud dissent has been heard on buses, in stores, in the hallways of institutions and even in classrooms.

At the beginning of this year an avalanche of reports filled the television broadcasts. The protagonists were young people who claimed to live “in the best of all possible worlds,” smiling with confidence in their future and not even dreaming of emigration. Not included among the opinions were those from anyone in the process of leaving Cuba, or feeling frustrated by their professional prospects, or submerging themselves in illegalities to survive.

In the almost 70,000 hours of annual television broadcasts not a single self-employed person complains about their high taxes. Parents who fear the growing violence in Cuban streets are never encountered in the Cuban media, and women beaten by their husbands don’t appear demanding legal measures to protect them from the abuse.

The teachers whose pay doesn’t allow them to live a decent life find no echo of their demands in the media, nor do dissidents appear to demand respect for their opinions. An inmate denouncing bad prison conditions has no chance to appear before the cameras, nor do the patients who have been victims of medical ethics violations or bad treatment in the Public Health System.

This entire area of Cuba, the widest area, remains outside the authorized media. Because the official Cuban press doesn’t exercise journalism, rather it proselytizes. Although it is made up of many professionals with university and post-graduate degrees, they do not have the freedom to engage in the work of reporting. Instead of looking for the truth, they try to impose an opinion. What they do cannot even call itself “the press.”

The Deadly Kiss of Price Controls

The official press blames private producers for the high prices of many foods. (14ymedio)

The official press blames private producers for the high prices of many foods. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 4 January 2016 — I was ten years old when Fidel Castro launched the economic battle he called the “Rectification of errors and negative tendencies.” The Maximum Leader’s rage fell, at that time, on private farmers and on the intermediaries who marketed their products. Cuatro Caminos Plaza in Havana, then known as the Single Market, was assaulted by officials and after that raid several foods disappeared from our lives: onions, garbanzo beans, chili peppers and even taro.

Almost a decade later, when the country had reached bottom with food shortages and scarcities, the government again authorized non-state food markets. The first time I approached a stand and bought a string of garlic, without having to practice stealth, I recovered a part of my life that had been snatched from me. For years we had to appeal to the illegal market, to a precarious clandestinity, to get things ranging from a pound of beans to the cumin seeds needed to season them.

However, the return of “farmers markets” has not been free of attacks and government animosity. The official press blames private producers for the high prices of many foods, and the figure of the intermediary has been demonized in the extreme. In the last 2015 session of the National Assembly, the idea was floated of imposing price regulation on certain food products, to force merchants to reduce the amounts.

At first glance, this would appear to favor consumers. Who wouldn’t consider it good news that a pound of pork without bones would not exceed 30 Cuban pesos, or never reach the astronomical 50 peso asking price in Havana’s Egido market at the end of 2015. The initial reaction of customers would be to welcome it, because a single lemon would no longer cost one Cuban peso, nor would papaya sell for 5 Cuban pesos a pound. However, behind the regulated prices come greater evils.

What could happen is that the products subjected to price controls would disappear from the agricultural markets and once again go into hiding. We would not be able to go to the corner to buy a pound of onions, like we have done over the last two decades, but would return to the times when we’d end up at the side of some road or in the middle of nowhere illegally dealing directly with the producers or the persecuted intermediaries.

Consumers would end up paying the piper for a measure that does not solve the problem of the lack of productivity on our farms or of the extremely low wages.

An economy is not planned on a whim, nor is it managed by force of restrictions, rather it is a fragile framework where lack of confidence and excessive state control are like a deadly embrace, leaving us without the ability to breathe on our own. In this grip, controlled prices come to be feared as the kiss of death that strangles commerce and leaves it lifeless.

Beans, ah, the beans!

Beans are an effective indicator to calculate the cost of living in Cuba. (DC)

Beans are an effective indicator to calculate the cost of living in Cuba. (DC)

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 31 December 2015 – Tiny and tasty, they seem to look at us from the plate and mock the work it takes to get them. Beans are not only a part of our traditional cuisine, they constitute an effective indicator to calculate the cost of living in Cuba. The price increases these delicious little bits have experienced in the past year is proof of the disastrous economic policy promoted by Raul Castro.

When, in February of 2008, the former Minister of the Armed Forces assumed the presidency of the country, many were betting on the pragmatic character of his mandate. His sympathizers never stopped reminding us of the phrase in which he asserted, “Beans are more important than canons.” They predicted that our national agriculture would work like certain farms managed by the Ministry of the Armed Forces and the Youth Labor Army.

Hopes that overlooked José Martí’s accurate maxim, “A nation is not founded like a military camp is commanded.” The behavior of a soldier in the trenches can never be equated with a farmer’s day, and an officer’s command to bend one’s back over the earth has nothing in common with the efforts of a peasant to hire someone to bring in his harvest.

The harangues against the invasive marabou weed, launched by Raul Castro in his first years as president, fueled expectations, as did his call to put a glass of milk on every Cuban’s breakfast table. The Raulistas discerned in those statements the soaring of food production and the bringing down to earth of prices, to be consistent with wages. But neither occurred.

Instead, in recent months consumers have suffered a significant increase in the cost of agricultural products. If the year started with a pound of black beans costing between 12 and 15 Cuban pesos, at the close of December the price varied between 15 and 20 pesos – the wages of an entire working day – reaching the staggering price of 30 pesos in the case of garbanzo beans.

Meanwhile, the average monthly wages in the country only grew from 581 to 640 Cuban pesos (roughly $25 US), a symbolic increase which, expressed in a worker’s purchasing power, equals about three more pounds of beans a month. The results Raul Castro has achieved with his much-vaunted methods are not far removed from the little his brother Fidel Castro achieved with his grandiose agricultural and livestock projects.

The usufruct leasing of land to farmers ran up against the bureaucracy, excessive controls and the poor state of the leased land. El Trigal, the experimental wholesale market, is a sequence of empty stalls, petulant bananas and high prices. In reality, it is easier to find an apple brought from thousands of miles away than an orange or chiromoya planted in our own fields. For the coming year, the country will spend 1.94 billion dollars on food imports, and nobody even talks about the battle against the invasive marabou weed any more.

“I have to earn my beans,” says a teacher, as he justifies dedicating his workday to cooking pork, along with a portion of“Moors and Christians”– as we call black beans and rice – that he sells illegally to the workers at a hospital. Because yes, our lives revolve, rise and fall around those delicious little bits that we long to put on our plates. Expensive and tasty, they are the best indicator of the General’s failure.

The Marriage Between Venezuela and Chavismo Failed

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro (EFE)

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro (EFE)

Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 7 December 2015 — This time neither deception nor fear worked. Like a woman long threatened by an abusive husband, Venezuela has slammed the door on Chavismo and done so with determination. From now on, governing will be an ordeal for Nicolas Maduro. With a party at an absolute disadvantage in parliament, Hugo Chavez’s successor can only impose his presidential will by violating his own laws.

The people, the same people that the president of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) invoked from the platform to justify his misdeeds, has said no to 21st Century Socialism and the national project promoted by the ruling party. A flat refusal against a political force under whose management the South American nation has been plunged into insecurity, shortages, corruption and unsustainable polarization.

People are fed up. Tired of so much tense discourse, of fear in the streets, of the constant emigration of the young and of the instability that gnaws at everything and that in the last year has gotten worse. The voters also used their votes to penalize a party that hasn’t known how to govern for everyone, but only for a part of society, which has systematically railed against those who think differently.

With the tool of the polls in their hands, Venezuelans have pushed change in a peaceful way, without stepping into the trap of violence or engaging in an armed revolution. Maduro has reaped, thus, the fruits of his mismanagement. His declarations prior to the elections, among which was the threat of fight from the streets if his party was defeated, only to the determination of a social decision that was already made. With his words, he finished digging the grave of his own executive office.

Because there is a moment when the abused realizes that the abuser is just another frail human being, someone who can be defeated. That moment arrived for the Venezuelan people this December 6, as they demonstrated with their votes that Chavismo is neither eternal nor popular. What happened confirms the loss of the fear with which a 17-year authoritarianism had permeated the country, the sick relationship of dependency and dread with which it wanted to keep its citizens paralyzed.

The election results also go against the Plaza of the Revolution in Havana. In the dark intricacies of that power that has spent more than five decades without calling elections, the figure of Hugo Chavez was molded, and it tried to do the same with Nicolas Maduro. But the move backfired because it came up against a population that reacted, an opposition that knew how to unite despite its differences, and an international community that closed ranks in criticism of the methods of the PSUV.

The axis financed from Miraflores and symbolized by the political bravado of Chavez and the mediocre arrogance of the current president, is beginning to disarm. Venezuela already sees the way out and is dragging behind itself an island that still does not dare to stop the blows of an abusive government, to close the door and leave it outside the national future.

IMO, Person of the Year in Cuba / Yoani Sanchez

A Cuban migrant navigating the internet on her cellphone from a shelter in Nazareht, Costa Rica (Reinaldo Escobar)

A Cuban migrant navigating the internet on her cellphone from a shelter in Nazareht, Costa Rica (photo 14ymedio)

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 28 November 2015 – December will soon be here and numerous lists of this year’s protagonists will be published in Cuba. A difficult task in a country that over the last 12 months was visited by a pope, a secretary of state and even by Mick Jagger. However, the person who takes all the palms is not a politician, a religious leader or a rocker. It is a mobile application with a short name and a profound impact on our reality: IMO.

With over 150 million accounts worldwide, this video-call tool burst into our daily lives mid-year to shorten distances and reunite families. With its simple interface and capacity to adapt itself to the low speeds of our internet connection, IMO has achieved what insularity and politics has limited for so long: contact with the world.

Headquartered in Palo Alto, the startup responsible for this tool for text chats, voice and video, was founded by one of the first ten Google employees, who says that he likes working “on challenging projects.” A maxim that has been extensively tested in Cuba, where despite the technological obstacles the app has spread virally through smartphones and tablets.

Anyone who says that technology distances us and locks us in solitude, can wander through the wifi zone on Havana’s La Rampa and see the tears and smiles this utility gives rise to when Cubans connect between here and there. The emotions are very much as if they were face to face. There is no coldness on the screen, nothing dehumanizing on the keyboard, when they are the only chance of encountering the people we love.

The corner of Infanta and 23rd, any Saturday. A lady enjoys the son she hasn’t seen for two decades, checks out his latest hair dye, while the emigrant’s sister has brought the dog who also participates in the moment. At their side, a young man no more than 20 insistently repeats, while holding the phone in front of his face, “Don’t delay, get me out of here.” Through IMO we have tackled, in recent months, our hopes and our despair.

Even prostitution with foreigners has become more technological through the new utility. Now “the merchandise” is evaluated before the customer arrives in the country. The other day a young girl swept a tablet with a camera over her whole body while, on the other side, someone with a German accent asked if it was true that she was over 18.

However, IMO deserves the title of Person of the Year above all because of the key role it has played in the migratory crisis facing close to 4,000 Cubans on the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. While the official media remained silent about these rafters-on-foot, this tool has kept their families on the island informed about the fates of their loved ones trapped in Central America.

From Information to Action

Yoani Sanchez accepts the Knight International Journalism Award 2015. (karinkarlekar)

Yoani Sanchez accepts the Knight International Journalism Award 2015. (karinkarlekar)

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 12 November 2015 — My grandmother only knew how to write the first letter of her name. She would sign documents with an almost childish looking capitalized “A.” In spite of being illiterate, Ana always advised me to study and learn as much as possible. Nevertheless, that laundress who never went to school taught me the best lesson of my life: that tenacity and hard work are needed to accomplish one’s dreams. She instilled in me the urgency of  “action.” Action with a capital “A,” like the only letter of her name that she could write.

However, action can become a problem if it is not appropriately accompanied by information. An uninformed citizen is easy prey for the powerful, a guaranteed victim for manipulation and control. In fact, an individual without information cannot be considered a whole citizen, because her rights will constantly be violated and she will not know how to demand and reclaim them.

The most expansive authoritarian regimes in history have been characterized by a strict control of the media and a high disregard for freedom of information. For these systems, a journalist is an uncomfortable individual who must be tamed, silenced, or eliminated. These are societies where a journalist is recognized only when she repeats the official government rhetoric, applauds the authorities, and sings praises to the system.

I have lived forty years under a government that considers that information is treason. At first, when I learned to read and began to pay attention to the national media, with its optimistic headlines and data on the country’s economic over-achievement, I blindly believed what those newspapers were saying. That country that only existed in the ink of the Cuban Communist Party’s national newspaper was similar to the one my teachers taught me about in school, similar to the one from the Marxist manuals and the speeches of the Maximum Leader. But it did not resemble the reality.

From the frustration between my desires to know and the wall of silence that the official Cuban press imposes on so many issues, the person I am now was born.

My first reaction in the face of so much manipulation and censorship – like that of so many of my fellow citizens – was simply to stop reading that press which served those in power, that propaganda disguised as journalism. Like millions of Cubans, I sought information that was hidden, censored news articles, and I learned to hear the radio transmissions coming from outside even with the interference that the government would impose on them.

I felt like I would drown if I wasn’t informed. But, then another moment came. A moment when I switched to “action.” It wasn’t enough to know everything that was being hidden from me and to decipher the truth behind so many false statistics and such editorial grandiloquence. I wanted to be part of those who narrated the Cuban reality. Thus, I began my blog Generation Y in April of 2007, and with it I took the path of no return as a reporter and a journalist. A path filled with danger, gratification, and great responsibility.

During the past eight years, I have lived all of the extremes of the journalistic profession: the honors and the pains; the frustration of not being allowed to enter an official press conferences and the marvel of finding an ordinary Cuban who gives me the most valuable of testimonies. I have had moments where I have exalted this profession and moments in which I wished I had never written that first word. There is no journalist who does not carry the burden of her own demons.

Now, I lead a media outlet, 14ymedio, the first independent news platform inside of Cuba. I am no longer the teenager who turned her eyes away from the official press, looked for other alternative news sources, and later began her own blog as if she were someone opening a window into the entrails of a country. I now have new responsibilities. I lead a group of journalists, who every day must cross the lines of illegality to perform their jobs.

I am responsible for each and every one of the journalists who are a part of the newsroom of our news platform. The worst moments are when one of them takes longer than expected to return from covering a story and we have to call their family to say that they have been arrested or are being interrogated. Those are the days that I wish that I had not written that first word…or that I had not written that first word the moment I did, but much earlier.

I feel that if we had moved towards action, and if we had exercised our right to inform much earlier, Cuba would now be a country where a journalist would not be synonymous with a tamed professional or a furtive criminal. But at least we have begun to do it. We have moved from information into action, to help change a nation through news, reporting, and journalism. It is Action with a capital “A,” like the one my grandmother wrote on those papers though she never really understood what they were saying.

Note: Speech delivered by Yoani Sanchez on 10 November in New York, at the ceremony for the 2015 Knight International Journalism Awards. The director of 14ymedio was given the award last May by the International Center for Journalists for her “uncommon resolve in the fight against censorship.”