Havana, Year Zero

The majority of Cubans are tied to a daily cycle of survival (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 17 April 2018 — My mother was born under the Castro regime, I was born under the Castro regime and my son was born under the Castro regime. At least three generations of Cubans have lived only under the leadership of two men with the same surname. That uniformity is about to be broken on April 19 when the name of the new president will be publicly announced. Whether he maintains the status quo or looks to reform it, his arrival to power marks a historical fact: the end of the Castro era on this Island.

Despite the closeness of this day, without precedent in the last half century, in the streets of Havana expectations are extremely low. In a country on the cusp of experiencing a transcendental change in its Nomenklatura that could begin in couple of days.

At least three reasons feed this indifference. The first is the regrettable economic situation that keeps the majority of people tied to a daily cycle of survival, one in which political speculations or predictions of a different tomorrow are tasks relegated to other emergencies, like putting food on the table, traveling to and from work, or planning to escape to other latitudes.

The second reasons for so much apathy has to do with the pessimism that springs from a belief that nothing will change with a new face in the official photos, because the current gerontocracy will remain in control through a docile and well-controlled puppet. Meanwhile, the third force engendering so much ennui is knowing no other scenario, of having no references that allow on to imagine that there is life after the so-called Historic Generation.

This feeling of fatality, that everything will continue as it is now, is the direct result of six decades of, first, Fidel Castro, and later Raul Castro, controlling the Island with no other person to cast shadows or question their authority at the highest rung of the government. By remaining at the helm of the national ship, by their force in crushing the opposition and eliminating other charismatic leaders, both brothers have shown themselves, throughout this entire time, to be an indispensable and permanent part of our national history.

More than 70% of Cubans were born after that January in 1959 when a group of barbudos – bearded men – entered Havana, armed and smiling. Shortly after that moment, school textbooks, all the media of the press and government propaganda presented the “revolutionaries” dressed in olive green as the fathers of the nation, the messiahs who had saved the country and redeemed the people. They spread the idea that Cuba is identified with the Communist Party, the official ideology of a man named Castro.

Now, biology is about to put an end to that chapter of our history. The Cuban calendar could have, in this, its year zero, a new beginning, However, instead of people waving flags in the plazas, of enthusiastic young people shouting slogans, or epic photos, the feeling one perceives everywhere is that of exhaustion. The stealthy attitude of millions of people whose enthusiasm has atrophied after a very long wait.

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This text was  originally published by Deustche Welle’s Latin America page.

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An Embarrassment

More than fifty Cuban pro-government and a dozen Venezuelans screamed “mercenaries” as they hijacked the start of the meeting between representatives of governments and members of civil society. (EFE / Alberto Valderrama)

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 16 April 2018 — The echoes of the recently concluded Summit of the Americas are beginning to fade. The event that summoned most of the presidents of the region and served as a framework for various social forums is a thing of the past. However, the images of the deplorable performance of the official Cuba delegation remain fresh in our memory.

The ‘civil society’ that Raul Castro sent to Peru provokes, at the very least, at sense of embarrassment over the actions of others. Their contemptuous faces and their intolerant screams spread the idea that the inhabitants of this Island have no talent for debate, we lack the necessary respect for differences and respond to arguments with shouts.

They, with their calculated bullying and their picket line behavior, have seriously affected the image of the nation. Under the slogan “Don’t mess with Cuba,” they ended up damaging this country’s reputation in the region even more, a prestige already greatly undermined by our having tolerated, as a people, more than half a century of an authoritarian system.

Why did these shock troops insist on their performance knowing the backlash they engendered? Because the message to be transmitted was precisely that of a horde of automatons without nuance or humanity. Their bosses in Havana trained them to present that sad spectacle, exposed them to ridicule, and used them to make it clear that nothing has changed.

Over time, as has happened so often, some of the protagonists of these escraches will ascend to positions of greater responsibility as a reward for the decibels they achieved with their cries. Others will emigrate, using the opportunity of some official trip to escape from the country, and try to forget making such fools of themselves. But they will never apologize to the victims of their aggressiveness.

The new stain on the image of the nation will last longer than the false intransigence of these soldiers disguised as citizens. They will move on, but the shame will remain.

The Arrival of the Potato and the President, in Priority Order

All life seems to revolve around a tuber that disappeared for months from state market stalls. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 28 February 2018 — Daybreak and the morning is different. An agitation has been running through the neighborhood since the previous afternoon, when the neighbors spotted a potato truck while it was unloading at the market on the corner. The arrival of the product caused early risings, fights and even the resale of dozens of pounds in the surrounding area.

A certain aroma of fried potato has been wafting through the air for hours and in the hallways people are exchanging ways of preparing the food “using little oil” or “so that it lasts longer.” All life seems to revolve around a tuber that for months has disappeared from the state market stalls, where now sales are limited to just five pounds per person.

One wonders if such an excitement would have been generated on the island if the first official date for the departure of Raul Castro from the presidency had been adhered to. What if he had finished his term on February 24? Would people be talking about the issue as much as they are talking today about the arrival of the potato?

Probably not. The lack of enthusiasm for an event that analysts are calling the most important historical milestone of the last decades on this Island, the “change of an era,” or the end of the reign of the surname Castro, seems to have many reasons.

There is a widespread opinion that nothing is going to change in the country, no matter who takes the helm. Passions around this succession have also cooled in part because the wait has been too long. For some it has been decades, or their whole lives, and fatigue has finally caught up with them.

Citizens share the perception that “no matter what happens up there” they will not be the ultimate beneficiaries. However, the fundamental disinterest arises from the lack of surprises in a process organized to ensure that nothing changes.

Thin slices of potato in a frying pan can have more unforeseen results than a new face for the Cuban president. There is more mystery and excitement in the arrival in the neighborhood of a truck loaded with a product that nobody has seen for months, than in the boring political game of replacing one name with another but keeping the system unchanged.

A Spanish Ambassador in the Wrong Place

Was it the decision of the Spanish ambassador Juan José Buitrago to go to the cemetery of Santa Ifigenia and lay flowers at the monolith that holds the ashes of Fidel Castro? (Sierra Maestra)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 20 February 2018 — Five years ago, when I visited Spain for the first time, a fake photo showing me at the tomb of the dictator Francisco Franco began to circulate. I posted a brief denial on Twitter, but the incident helped me to reflect on the need to inform oneself about the history of a country one visits, its symbols, passions and animosities.

Five years later, but this time without some crude photographic manipulation, I see the Spanish ambassador on our island posing in front of the monolith containing the ashes of Fidel Castro. Juan José Buitrago de Benito, who presented his credentials last May, appears in an image standing at almost military attention, a few yards from the headstone of someone who, for almost five decades, remained in power by force.

Like any diplomat experienced in the arts of handling situations, Buitrago de Benito must have weighed the implications of taking that snapshot and leaving a floral tribute before he arrived there. He had to know that his action was going to unleash furious passions and send a clear signal of ideological positioning and a political posture sympathetic to the ruling party.

Two questions immediately come to mind seeing him there, in his impeccable guayabera under the sun Santa Ifigenia cemetery: Was it his decision to go? Did he know the connotations his visit would have?

For those who deeply understand the skillful maneuvers of the Cuban authorities to deceive every visitor to the country, one can imagine a naive ambassador who entered the cemetery to pay tribute to José Martí, national hero and son of Spaniards, and who on arriving was almost pushed to also visit the nearby Castro monolith.

If that is the case, the lack of knowledge of this reality and its codes has played a trick on Buitrago de Benito. His not knowing how to “stand firm” to avoid a trap set with premeditation and a lot of treachery, has caused a stumbling block that will mark his entire stay with us.

However, it is possible that it was his own decision, from the moment he headed to the cemetery. Then we are left to think that he is an admirer of the deceased or at least of that biography full of falsehoods and clichés that presents him as a savior of peoples, wise and just. Or another option, even worse: that with the visit to the tomb he hoped to win the favors of the authorities, who are wounded after the fiasco of the supposed future visit, recently belied, of the King and Queen of Spain to Cuba.

Any of these options, a naivety that led to a trap or a calculated intention, present the Spanish diplomat in a bad light. His visit to Santiago de Cuba, which had begun on a very good footing with the announcement of a new consulate for the eastern area, has become an unfortunate misstep in his diplomatic career.

We have yet to hear his explanations, but a photo, authentic and without trickery, has already said more than a thousand words.

The Moderate Is Also An Enemy

In the end, all of his art, his public image, and even his complaint have been determined by this entity – the faceless one – that he fears so much. (Artwork: El Sexto)

A friend calls me sounding depressed. For years he has chosen caution and the path of moderation but even so, he wasn’t able to avoid being labeled an enemy. In his work he avoided knocking on the doors of those the government found most “uncomfortable,” rejected support that he considered “radioactive” and appealed to his own self-censorship to avoid ending up on the opposing side. It did little for him.

My friend enjoyed a period of certain advantages for not having become “a radical.” He was invited to endless embassy receptions, where he was presented as a young exponent of “a reformist tendency among the left.” There, he worked hard to demonstrate that his desires for change were within socialism and that his work contained intrinsic “constructive criticism.”

Amid the mojitos and canapés, the smiling diplomats looked on him with satisfaction, pleased that on the island there are people who don’t shout freedom slogans, who continue to work within some state institution, but who are allowed to let slip sharp accusations about the bureaucracy, the impediments of conformism and the corrupt practices, without being labeled a mercenary.

My friend was everything they needed: an artist who pushes “from within the limits,” with grace, a bit of humor and always clarifying that “Cuba is not how the dissidents paint it to be.”

Thanks to this image, he had access to funds he described as coming from foundations or entities with no ties at all Washington or the international “right.” To pave the way for such economic support, he excluded from his art those voices that he feared could “contaminate” his work and limited contact with his most “controversial” acquaintances.

Thus, stepping cautiously, like someone picking his way over broken glass, my friend managed to build a reputation as an “uncomfortable” – but not censored –artist, a citizen who demands his rights but respects the current and “authentic” Cuban system, who speaks from the shadows but also “values ​​the achievements of the Revolution.”

He never counted, so as not to break that ideal construction, the police citations he received over the last years, the arm across his shoulders from so many cultural officials inviting him to avoid certain red lines, nor the bits of evidence he was collecting about the surveillance he was subjected to.

Often, so that there would be no doubts about his loyalty to the cause, he lent his name and image to critiques, in the national media, of those who took stronger positions. Later, sotto voce, he clarified to his friends that his opinions had been manipulated by State Security while, in reality, he was sympathetic to the lost sheep.

None of it mattered. This week, the name of my friend has appeared in an article published on an official website that describes opposition leaders and moderate artists as “recalcitrant.” Years of carving a “permitted” face went up in smoke with a click.

Now he calls me, wanting to denounce the injustice to human rights organizations, crying out because he is not put in the same bag, and detailing his pedigree. It is all in vain. They never trusted him, they always considered him the system’s adversary from the moment in which he reflected, in his art, the reality and embraced, timidly, with his work, a certain plurality.

Still stomping his foot, he emphasizes in the phone call that he doesn’t want to make “a media show” of it, nor offer himself “on a silver platter to the [country to the] North,” but these explanations he is offering are not for me, but to the other person listening in on the line. In the end, all of his art, his public image, and even his complaint have been determined by this entity – the faceless one – that he fears so much.

‘Doctor Zhivago’, An Old Acquaintance Opens In Cuba

Screenshot of ‘Doctor Zhivago’, inspired by Boris Pasternak’s novel. (CC)

Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, 25 January 2018 — The book was part of the private collection of a writer who went into exile and even though the title did not appeal I chanced it, bored in the midst of the publishing drought of the ‘90s. Its pages narrated a country I knew, but described a different place, convulsed, unjust and harsh. Doctor Zhivago came into my hands when the Soviet Union had disappeared and in it I found a part of the answers to explain that disaster.

A quarter of a century later, Cuban television finally broadcast the well-known film inspired by the novel, directed by British director David Lean. Released in that long ago 1965, the movie was absent from the screens of the island until 22 January of this year, though before the airing the program’s commentator warned about the picture’s ideological distortions.

An unnecessary clarification, because the story of Yuri Zhivago is well known on this island thanks to the infallible formula “there is nothing more attractive than the forbidden.” For decades, the work written by Boris Pasternak circulated from hand to hand – its cover wrapped in the boring state newspaper Granma to avoid indiscreet eyes – or, in recent years, in that elusive digital format that easily mocks the thought police.

Unlike George Orwell’s 1984Doctor Zhivago was not banned for predicting a totalitarian future that lined up along many points with our socialist Cuba, but because it described an uncomfortable past for those who wanted to present Russia as a country where the proletarians had achieved a Parnassian state of equality, comradeship and justice.

Instead of the Manichean vision taught in Cuban schools, Pasternak’s work focused on a tormented individual, shaken by social vagaries and more concerned with emerging unscathed from his circumstances than in sacrificing himself for a cause. He was an antihero far-removed from the “New Man” and the Soviet ideal.

The adventures the book had to circumvent also served as an argument to those who wielded the scissors at the Island’s publishers. Its publication in Italy 1957, the Nobel Prize it won Pasternak and the official pressures that forced him to reject the award contributed to the denial of Cubans’ right to read it.

The “camaraderie” in the Communist Bloc was filled such actions. An author censored in one of the countries that made up the vast red geography also made the blacklist in the other nations orbiting the Kremlin. Havana did not ignore that maxim and was faithful to its national stepmother, depriving its citizens of one of the twentieth century’s anthological works.

They censored it in Cuba not only out of ideological complicity with the country that economically sustained all the eccentricities of Fidel Castro, but because in its pages the Great October Socialist Revolution came out badly; it was a mass of informers, police, pressures of all kinds and lies. A suffocating scenario where the individual could barely protect her privacy and herself.

They say that when he was expelled from power, in 1964, Nikita Khrushchev read Pasternak’s novel. “We should not have banned it. I should have read it. There is nothing anti-Soviet in it,” he acknowledged then.

The Cuban censors, however, have not drafted an apology, nor is it necessary. History sounded the vigorous trumpet: the country they tried to protect from the supposed calumnies of the writer ceased to exist almost three decades ago; but Doctor Zhivago remains a vibrant and unforgettable novel.

Letter to a Threatened Journalist

Luz Escobar has worked for 14ymedio since its founding in 2014. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, 17 January 2018 – Luz, you have had an incredible “privilege”: To see up close the true face under the Fantômas mask.

In your police interview this Monday those State Security agents showed you, with complete self-confidence, who they really are, what is hidden behind the discourse of supposed ‘Revolutionary ethics’ and ‘defense of the country.’ In reality, under their clothes they are ‘mafioso’ whose methods mimic the worst style of the Camorra.

They have threatened you, they have warned you that the people closest to you will pay the consequences, they have even asked you to become one of them to betray your colleagues. All this, using the only tool they know: repression.

Your life will become more difficult from now on. Many friends will stop calling you, others will cross to the other side of the street when they see you, dozens of acquaintances will say you’ve gone crazy or that you are brainwashed, others will advise you to leave the country as soon as possible, to shut up, to stop writing. Some relatives will tell you to think about your daughters, while the fence around your house, your neighborhood, your person, will become suffocating.

They themselves, with the characteristic abuse of power, will spread the word that you are a ‘mercenary’ or, in the worst case, that you work for the ‘apparatus’ as an ‘undercover agent’. Distrust will rise like a wall around your work. These campaigns of defamation and demonization will affect every detail of your existence, from who knocks on your door to sell you a little milk, to the phrases the teachers repeat in your daughters’ classrooms.

However, from today, you will also feel a strange lightness, as if a weight you had been carrying on your shoulders for years has been lifted. They, without planning to, have given you the best argument to continue your career in journalism, because they have shown you that ‘up there’ nothing remains of respect for the citizen, for ethics, morality, sincerity, integrity… and much less for COURAGE. Of which you possess oceans.

Welcome to your new life. Enjoy it and be free.