Maduro Does Not Know How to Govern

Nicolas Maduro

Nicolas Maduro

Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 20 February 2015 — I never thought I’d get to say this, but Venezuela is worse than Cuba. It is true that the South American country has not surpassed in number nor in intensity the shortages of basic products, the economic collapse, nor the police surveillance that we suffer; but Venezuela is worse than Cuba. Its seriousness reflects its repeating of the failed past that we Cubans are trying to escape.

In the case of both nations, the fiasco has been determined largely by improper and harmful leadership. Cuba, with a Fidel Castro who tried to mold the country in his image and likeness, taking on his marked tendency to authoritarianism, intolerance, obsession for power, and the leader’s inability to deal with others’ success. To which must be added a paranoia so fierce it made him distrust his own shadow, which he seems to have transmitted to his disciple Nicolas Maduro.

So when I heard about the arrest of the opposition mayor Antonio Ledezma, accused of a supposed link with violent acts against the government, I couldn’t help but remember all the times that the fears of our “Maximum Leader” ended the professional, political and even the physical life of some Cuban. How many times did they justify a turn of the political screw under the pretext of an attempt against the Commander and Chief? Which of these assassinations were invented by the official propaganda itself, just to divert attention from other issues?

The scheme of “here comes the wolf” is already so hackneyed that it would be laughable if it weren’t for the dire implications for the people. Maduro theatrically – and before the cameras – plays the role of victim about to succumb to an international conspiracy. The seams of the farce are clear to see, but he is still dangerous. He believes he embodies the nation, so he denounces the plots and machinations to kill him, trying to obtain the benefits of a nationalism and trashy as it is fleeting.

His presidency has been a sequence of supposed coups, conspiracies that develop outside the borders, and enemies who are trying to destabilize the country

Chavez’s successor does not know how to deal with the normal, nor how to lead in a balanced way, nor how to offer Venezuelans a national project where everyone is included. Such that he can only fall back on fear. His presidency has been a sequence of supposed coups, conspiracies that develop outside the borders, and enemies who are trying to destabilize the country. He doesn’t know any method of leadership other than perennial tension.

Ledezma is the latest victim of this political paranoia. Leopoldo Lopez just completed a year in prison and in the coming months is very likely to be joined by other opponents added to the list of the arrested and prosecuted. Nicolas Maduro with again denounce plots against him, pointing out those presumed guilty of some attempt and directing the accusing finger at the White House.

All this to hide that he doesn’t know how to govern and can only imitate the dismal model he’s inherited from his mentors of the Plaza of the Revolution. The result is a bad copy of the Cuban model, a crude replica in which ideology has ceded its entire terrain to the ravings of a man.

The Independents of the Independents

ADSL cables

ADSL cables

Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 8 February 2015 — “Do not talk about politics or religion,” says the number one rule of the most extensive illegal data network in Havana. Those who join the network of routers and antennas that make up SNET accept such guidelines as a matter of survival. Plugging into the service allows them to form a part of a brotherhood that every member protects and keeps “low profile.” Despite such strict limitations, it’s worth experiencing this chance to connect ourselves to others, to use the internal chat service, and to experience the vertigo of being online… even though we know we are sadly offline. An illusion of Internet that is maintained as long as the WiFi receptor on our computers is lit up.

The audiovisual “packets” are the same. Among their dozens of folders filled with TV shows and movies, some news and magazines slip in. One click us enough to see that few want to make problems for themselves with the government by distributing critical materials. Such that the sharers of the so-called “combo,” pay the toll of including copies of the government newspaper Granma, materials from Cuban television news, and backups of digital sites belonging to the provincial newspapers. But… as they say of a character in a film, “among the fallen leaves shine nuggets of gold.” Circulating in this compendium are several independent publications dedicated to music, celebrities, and the private sector, whose audience looks forward to every new number.

Those who would project Cuba’s future would do well to dive into this Cuba of the present

Attention! One way to write and to convey ideas to a great number of Cubans is being incubated in the “packet,” which includes glossy magazines – the independents of the independents – aimed at an audience that on reading them is already imagining a different country. So these abound in vivid colors, careful design, images of scrumptious dishes served up in exclusive restaurants, or interviews with well-known singers. None of these articles talk about politics, and yet every published text is a rejection of the ideology in power. From compendiums about how to be an entrepreneur, to success in business manuals, to simple workshops on cooking the most delicious stuffed churros in the neighborhood, it all makes up part of the publication offerings that are gaining space in the “packet.”

Those who would project Cuba’s future would do well to dive into this Cuba of the present. A reality contained in the more than one terabyte of data that passes from door to door. A passage through not what we claim to be, but what we are.

What Will We Do With the Hope?

An "Esperanza" (Hope) grasshopper. (Silvia Corbelle)

An “Esperanza” (Hope) grasshopper. (Silvia Corbelle)

“Any frustration is the daughter of excessive expectations,” I shared my concern with the U.S. members of Congress who visited Cuba in January. The phrase was designed to stress the flow of illusions that has been let loose in the population since December 17. The announcement of the restoration of relations between Cuba and the United States has provoked a resurgence in this country of a feeling lost for decades: hope.

However, the expectations that have been created are so high and so difficult to meet in the short term that many may feel disappointed. There is no way that reality can satisfy such extravagant fantasies of change. The level of deterioration in Cuba needs enormous resources and urgent transformations to be overcome. Time is of the essence, but the Cuban government still has shown no real political will for the new scenario to benefit a wide spectrum of Cuban society.

Before December 17, each person had been focused on aspirations in his or her area of interests and needs. An old locomotive engineer, who saw the dismantling of the railroad of which he spoke with great pride, now says, “You’ll see… we’ll even have a bullet train.” If you ask him the source of such a conviction, he assures you that, “When los yumas – the Americans – start to arrive they will improve transportation and surely bring us investments to improve the lines and buy the latest generation cars.” His dreams take the form of an iron serpent, brilliant and fast, crossing the island.

The expectations that have been created are so high and so difficult to meet in the short term that many might feel disappointed

There are others whose illusions take on the lightness of a kilobyte. A young man, 20, who only know the Internet through a few hours of slow and expensive connections in a Nauta Internet room, says that before the end of the year, “We will have data service on our cellphones.” His certainty is not born from any classified information to which he has access, but because, as he explains, “Obama already said so, the telecommunications companies can negotiate with Cuba, so what’s lacking for me to connect to Facebook and Skype all day long, it’s nothing… nothing.”

The great national obsession, which is food, also has had a space within the imaginative dreams of recent weeks. A housewife, who defines herself as “sick of having to cook the same thing, because there is nothing else,” has projected her illusions on the arrival of goods from the north. “Some lost products will return and the stores won’t have empty freezers like now.” Her perspectives are direct and clear, experiencing the lost taste of beef, the texture of oil and the smell of an onion browning in the pan.

Small private entrepreneurs are not far behind. For the owner of a luxurious private restaurant in the Vedado neighborhood, hope takes the contours of a ferry connecting Havana and Florida. “It will come soon and then we can bring cars, large imports and fresh food for our menu,” he explains with a conviction that provokes a certain anguished denial. He gives the impression that a full lounge, with drinks, bottles of wine and dimmed lights, will cross the water and arrive at the new place he’s building right next to his restaurant.

While expectations grow like a balloon about to burst, others contribute to them with projections from the artistic and creative field. A friend, a private film producer, believes that shortly, “Hollywood could be filming here and Cuban film talent could finally have the resources to do big productions.” For this celluloid artist, “What’s missing is a starting bell to authorize independent productions and allow us to have investors from the United States.”

Among the dissidence and civil society more than a few are preparing to legalize their groups or parties at the least opportunity. Among the hopeful, they are the most cautious because they know that the spigot of political liberties will be the last to open… if it opens at all. They project their own transition from the “illegal, clandestine and heroic phase” to the stage of a “legal, public and intelligent opposition.” Nor should we discount the illusions that have reached Cuban academia, the schools and other official institutions, where people are dusting off their old ideas of jumping into the arena of politics when the single-party system is a bad memory of the past. 

When the bubble of dreams bursts and the excessive expectations bring collective frustration, what will happen?

All these hopes, born on St. Lazarus Day and fed with the visits to Cuba of members of Congress and American negotiators, are now a double-edged sword for the Island’s government. On the one hand, the existence of so many illusions buys time and sets the horizon at the end of a long process of conversations between both administrations, which could go on for years. But, also, the disappointment derived from not meeting or from postponing such dreams will be focused directly on the Plaza of the Revolution.

The anger towards failure will not fall on Obama, but on Raul Castro. He knows this and in recent weeks his spokespeople have emphasized cutting back on the perspectives filling the streets of the entire country. They are trying to anticipate that everything will be more or less the same and that too many expectations can’t be met. But there is nothing harder than countering dreams. The symbolic weight of the beginning of the “thaw” between David and Goliath, cannot be alleviated with calls for calm, nor energetic speeches that point toward a halt in the negotiations.

When the months pass and the “bullet train” doesn’t arrive, the Internet continues to be impossible, the store freezers are as empty as they are today, the customs rules continue to block commercial imports to private hands, the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC) maintains its monopoly on film production, and being a member of an opposition party still results in official repression and ideological stigmatization… when the bubble of dreams bursts and the excessive expectations bring collective frustration, what will happen? Maybe from there the energy necessary to push for change will be born.

From Tatlin’s Whisper to Tatlin’s Cry

Images from the first Havana edition of "Tatlin's Whisper"

Images from the first Havana edition of “Tatlin’s Whisper”

Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 31 December 2014 – Those of us who participated in that first edition of Tatlin’s Whisper in Havana will never forget that minute of freedom in front of the microphone that would cost us years of official insults. The project to reenact the performance, but this time in the Plaza of the Revolution, invariably brought back to us memories of that night in the Wilfredo Lam center and the hope that this time the microphones would be open to a larger number of Cubans. I confess that I came to reflect on where it would be best to raise the podium, to place the actors dressed in olive-green who would regulate the time of each person’s speech, and how the white dove would look, fluttering over the shoulder of each orator.

On the eve of December 30 I talked with Tania Bruguera who, hoarse and exhausted, already felt the cage closing around her. All the signs pointed to their not allowing her to even reach the Plaza and the political police unleashing a wave of repression against those who wanted to accompany her. I ventured to describe three possible scenarios she might face: that they would not let her leave her home, or would arrest her; that they would let her get to the plaza which would be taken over by a last-minute popular festival with cheap beer, parades and loud music; that they would let her stage Tatlin’s Whisper, but fill the time at the microphone with voices shouting official slogans. There was no way to add to these variables one that would conclude with a chorus of plurality and tolerance making itself heard in front of the statue of José Martí.

In that conversation I told her that “The performance is already done; the artistic action achieved,” because with her project Bruguera had unveiled the framework of censorship, cultural cowardice and repression that immobilizes Cuban life. Many of her artist friends had declined to accompany her, some acquaintances had called on her to concede and move Tatlin’s Whisper to the interior some institution and others, more committed, had warned her that there was a plan to “abduct her from the Plaza.” From the early hours of the morning the macabre dance of arrests and intimidation began.

Ladies in White, activists, journalists and dissidents were jailed or blocked from leaving their homes. Many communicators had their cellphones cut off, text messaging cancelled and access to the government-operated Nauta email system restricted. In a whisper, information about what was happening began to surface. The 14ymedio team suffered a hard blow, with two reporters and a contributing writer arrested and our press office under a police operation for hours. The list of the jailed was growing and as communications began to work again we started calling each other to keep ourselves up-to-date.

But the whisper turned into Tatlin’s cry. One that is now heard through the phone lines, on Twitter, outside the police stations, where family members demand to spend the last day of the year with their loved ones. There is no microphone, no white dove, no one minute of freedom, but rather long hours of suffering and uncertainty.

Tania, among all the scenarios we projected, we missed this one. You in jail and from there, dressed in the gray uniform of an inmate, you performed the most devastating and unforgettable of all your artistic actions. The Plaza is today in each one of us.

Has D-Day Arrived?

Telephone conversation between Barack Obama and Raul Castro. (White House)

Telephone conversation between Barack Obama and Raul Castro. (White House)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 17 December 2014 — Today has been one of those days we imagine a thousand ways, but never as it finally happened. You prepare for a date on which you can celebrate the end, hug your friends who return home, wave a flag in the middle of the street, but D-Day is late. Instead, events arrive in fragments, an advance here, a loss there. With no cries of “Long live free Cuba,” nor uncorked bottles. Life obscures from us this turning point that we would mark forever on our calendars.

The announcement by the governments of Cuba and the United States of the reestablishments of diplomatic relations surprises us in the midst of signs that pointed in the opposite direction, and also of exhausted hopes. Raúl Castro just postponed the third round of talks with the European Union, scheduled for next month, and this December 10 repression fell heavily on activists, as it does every International Human Rights Day.

The first surprise was that, in the midst of the official bluster, of a certain turn of the ideological screw expressed in calls to redouble our guard against the enemy, the Plaza of the Revolution and the White House had been in talks for 18 months. Clear evidence that all this discourse of intransigence was just for show. While they made the island’s citizens believe that even to cross the threshold of the United States Interest Section in Havana turned them into traitors to the homeland, the leaders in their olive-green were working out agreements with Uncle Sam. The deceits of politics!

On the other hand, both Obama’s statements, as well as Castro’s, had a hint of capitulation. The US president announced a long list of moderating measures to bring the two nations closer, before the coveted and greatly demanded steps of democratization and political opening in our country would be achieved. The dilemma of what should have come first, a gesture from Havana or flexibility from Washington, has just been answered. However, the fig leaf of the American embargo remains, so that no one can say the resignation as been complete.

Raul Castro, for his part, limited himself to announcing the new gestures from Obama and referring to the exchange of Alan Gross and other prisoners of interest of the American government. However, in his address before the national television cameras, he gave no evidence of any agreement or compromise from the Cuban side, aside from the reestablishment of diplomatic relations. The agenda on the far side of the Florida Straits we know in detail, but the internal one remains, as it so often does, hidden and secret.

Still, despite the absence of public commitments on the part of Cuba, today was a political defeat. Under the leadership of Fidel Castro we would have never even reached an outline of an agreement of this nature. Because the Cuban system is supported by – as one of its main pillars – the existence of a permanent rival. David can’t live without Goliath and the ideological apparatus has depended too long on this dispute.

Do I listen to speeches or buy fish?

In the central market of Carlos III, customers were surprised midday that the big TVs were not broadcasting football or videoclips, but a speech by Raúl Castro and later one by Obama through the Telesur network. The first allocution caused a certain astonishment, but the second was accompanied by kisses launched toward the face of the US president, particularly when he mentioned relaxations in the sending of remittances to Cuba and the delicate topic of telecommunications. Now and again the cry of “I LOVE…” (in English!) could be heard from around the corner.

It is important to also say that the news had fierce competition, like the arrival of fish to the rationed market, after years of disappearance. However, by mid-afternoon almost everyone was aware and the shared feelings were of joy, relief, hope.

This, however, is just the beginning. Lacking is a public timeline by which commits the Cuban government to a series of gestures in support of democratization and respect for differences. We must take advantage of the synergy of both announcements to extract a public promise, which must include, at a minimum, four consensus points that civil society has been developing in recent months.

The release of all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience; the end of political repression; the ratification of the United Nations covenants on Civil, Political, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the consequent adjustment of domestic laws; and the recognition of Cuban civil society within and outside the island. Extracting these commitments would begin the dismantling of totalitarianism.

As long as steps of this magnitude are not taken, many of us will continue to think that the day we have longed for is not close. So, we will keep the flags tucked away, keep the corks in the bottles, and continue to press for the final coming of D-Day.

Parades and rights

Arrests in Havana on Human Rights Day (14ymedio)

Arrests in Havana on Human Rights Day (14ymedio)

Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 10 December 2014 — The carnival was planned for days, months. The background music would slogans and false joy. The venue, the same Havana corner where the Ladies in White were called to remember the International Day of Human Rights. Meanwhile, the “corps de ballet” would consist of workers and students – taken from their workplaces and teachers – to occupy the site chosen by the activists. There would be no lack of food kiosks and some provincial towns added huge trucks dispensing beer because, in our case, instead of bread and circuses, the formula is alcohol and repression.

Then it was time for the parade. Around the Coppelia ice cream stand, in Havana, an unusual crowd of people dressed in civilian clothes caught the attention of some naïve bystanders who didn’t know if it was a line to buy an extinct product, or passionate movie buffs waiting for the Yara cinema to open. Moving their heads from side to said, like someone waiting for prey, they were wearing the clothes we all recognize as the attire of State Security when they want to go undercover, and displayed that physical state of over corpulence compared to the average Cuban. They weren’t dancing, like at carnivals, they just moved towards the women who came dressed in white and tried to shield with their bodies the act of forcing them into a police car. A macabre “corps de ballet” thus represented their choreography of reprimand.

And then the trumpet sounded, excuse me… the car horn. A small lady had managed to get to the left atrium of the heart of El Vedado. Dozens of faces turned and they spoke into the little cables hanging from their earphones. An agent, who for years infiltrated the ranks of independent journalists, unmasked without pain or glory, directed the orchestra. The loudspeakers blared previously recorded phrases, so there were no surprises nor spontaneity. The woman disappeared in seconds. The kids drank their soft drinks and Havana experienced one of the coldest days of the year. The spectacle continued for hours.

How many times as a child was I part of a carnival of repression without knowing it? What naive parties did I participate in that, in reality, were a cover for the horrors? Have those dances and street festivals also been a police operation? After this, it will be hard for me to ever enjoy a parade again.

Mexico is running out of tears

Mobilization in Mexico City for 43 missing. (Twitter Juan Manuel Karg)

Mobilization in Mexico City for 43 missing. (Twitter Juan Manuel Karg)

YOANI SÁNCHEZ, Havana, 24 November 2014 — When I visited Mexico for the first time I was impressed by its tremendous potential and enormous problems. I was amazed by a culture whose calendar is lost in time, especially when compared to a Cuba that is still a teenager. However, most shocking for me were all the warnings and advice from friends and acquaintances about the insecurity and the dangers that might await one in every street.

The most heartbreaking testimony of that visit, which I heard from the mouth of Judith Torrea, a Spanish journalist based in Ciudad Juárez who collected the stories of mothers whose teenage children never returned to their jobs or their schools.

It pained me to see how violent death has become commonplace in different areas of this beautiful country. La Catrina – Mexico’s grande dame of death – was no longer smiling, rather her empty sockets seemed a sad premonition of what is needed to live in Mexico. The disappearance of the 43 students from Ayotsinapa has exceeded the horror already suffered by a society where corruption, an ineffective legal system, and the armed force of narco-traffickers have thrived for a long time. As if a people already torn apart by what they have lost could suffer new wounds.

Each one of these disappeared young people is around the age of my son Teo, some of their photos remind me of his swarthy face and slanted eyes. He could have been one of those who one day left school and decided to protest against the status quo. All indications are that the local political power, mixed in with the drug cartels, violently ended the lives of those who still had the better part of their existence ahead of them. Over the last few weeks their families have gone from tears to hope and back to pain. The sad end is not confirmed and no one wants to accept it as fact, but the evidence suggests the worst case scenario.

Mexico is running out of tears. It is the responsibility of Latin America to accompany this beloved nation in the search for answers to the disappearance of the students, but also to the solutions of the grave social and institutional problems that caused it. To the citizens, for our part, we offer our solidarity, and we share their pain and their anger. Let no one look their child in the eyes without remembering those who are missing.