History of a Botched Job

The most sagacious inquire why the same section of the conduit is broken again and again, as it is not even located on a busy street with heavy vehicles. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 11 September 2018 — The neighbors who pass in front of the huge crater scratch their heads, confused by the impression that they are suffering from déjà vu. Reasons for this estrangement are not lacking because the waterworks rupture that forced the closure of Conill Street, very close to the Avenida de la Independencia (Rancho Boyeros), has been repaired four times in a period of less than three years.

The current pit has been dug by the Havana Water Company, which is in charge of the supply of drinking water, the maintenance of the sewer system and the sanitation and storm drainage in the capital. On this entity falls a good part of the popular mockery and insults, for its remarkable inability to offer stable quality service.

With a bulldozer and an exasperating slowness, workers have unearthed on Conill Street a broken pipeline which, with its successive repairs, has become part of the landscape of this area of ​​Nuevo Vedado which is full of tall buildings constructed during the days of the Soviet subsidy. The deteriorated conduit has become a well-known character in these parts as well as an unwanted “neighbor” who, time after time, reminds us of his presence with a leak.

“It’s because the pipe was damaged,” the head of the works repeats with little enthusiasm this week, every time a concerned resident asks about the repairs that have affected the water supply to several surrounding blocks. The most sagacious inquire why the same section of the conduit is broken again and again, a section that is not even located on a busy street congested with heavy vehicles, but the man avoids answering.

The key to understanding the recurrence of the breakage is to recognize the degree to which most public works in Cuba are botched. “Every time they fix it, they don’t reinforce the area between the pipe and the asphalt, so the passing of the cars ends up damaging it,” says a neighbor who has not studied engineering or led a hydraulic repairs brigade, but who knows his own neighborhood well.

Others have been indirect accomplices to the bad practices suffered by this stretch of pipe. “The last time they stole some of the materials and there was even someone who paved the entrance to his private garage with what he diverted from that work,” says another resident nearby. “They filled the hole as well as they could and two weeks later there was another,” he says.

The hole in the street started as a slight drop, but over the months it turned into a dangerous cavern. Vehicles from the nearby Ministry of Agriculture had to drive around to avoid it and after the rainstorms it flooded for several days. In the end, the story repeated itself and the pipe that was underground ended up giving way.

“We have paid four times for this repair,” says a self-employed neighbor who sells pizzas a few yards away. “And I say we have paid because this comes out of our taxes, which are quite high.” The worried taxpayer passes each morning in front of the hole and wonders if there will be a fifth time. “Is this a curse?” He asks himself. But the Havana Water Company has no answers.

The Stampede of Venezuelans Jeopardizes Latin America

Hundreds of Venezuelans earn their living in the streets of Cúcuta by carrying suitcases of other emigrants who left like them. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Bogota/Havana, 9 September 2018 — Beside me, a woman with two children sobs as she remembers her native Caracas. In the office of the Immigration and Naturalization Service of Bogotá, the Venezuelan accent is heard on all sides, a multitude of exiles who have come from the neighboring country with barely the clothes on their backs and who still have the bewildered look of departure.

In another part of the Colombian capital, near the Plaza de Bolívar, a young man sells arepas very cheaply from a small cart adorned with the eight-star flag. He tells me that he left his two children on the other side of the border and that he is hoping to make enough money to reunite his family “in a safe country.”

A few yards away, another man works as a street artist, becoming a living statue of Simón Bolívar, with the buttoned uniform, a sad look and a sword in his hand. The sculpture breathes under Bogota’s drizzle and seems to symbolize a nation’s fall from grace. From the libertarian summits, through the paths of populism, to arrive at the abyss of the diaspora.

Almost everywhere in Colombia are the displaced people of the regime of Nicolás Maduro. Something similar to what has happened in Ecuador, Brazil and Peru, although the exiles also make it to Chile and Uruguay, in addition to those who have managed to leap the Atlantic and take refuge in Europe and those who have managed to enter the United States.

They have left behind their homes, their neighborhoods and their friends. They are the most recent chapter of the Latin American exodus, but this time starring citizens of a country where, just a few years ago, the president promised a future of opportunities for all. They are escaping from the failure of a system, putting land between their bodies and broken dreams.

The figures of this escape are just beginning to be known. At the end of August 2018, according to official data, 935,593 Venezuelans were living in Colombia, but the real number promises to be much higher. On the corners, at the traffic lights, on the outskirts of the markets you can see them, with the lost look of people trying to grasp their new context and a certain air of relief at having been able to escape.

The authorities of the receiving countries also display a certain disorientation. Most have had a long tradition of emigration and now face the challenge of welcoming their neighbors. The institutional response is clumsy in most cases and, in others, not very hospitable. The exodus has already faced xenophobic responses in some communities.

One of the most interrelated regions of the planet, with the majority of countries sharing a language and customs, has not been successful in crafting joint policies to ease the drama of these exiles. The granting of work permits, healthcare coverage, access to public education for Venezuelan children and the recognition of professional titles occurs at different levels in each host nation, without a common front.

The continent where, a few years ago, the standard-bearers of 21st century socialism joined hands and proclaimed an America for all, is now unable to respond in a judicious and inclusive manner to this humanitarian crisis. Territorial conflicts and the inability to work together are making the exodus more difficult for Venezuelans.

As a curious fact, the escape route does not include Cuba. The island does not appear on the destination map of these migrants. On the one hand, because it is not advisable to take refuge from an evil in the place that promoted and supported the implantation of the system from which you are fleeing. On the other, because behind the false image of a country in solidarity, Cuban legislation is among of the strictest with regards to obtaining residency or sheltering displaced persons.

But the drama is not experienced only by those who have left, but also by those who are left behind. The massive exit of citizens is causing an accelerated depopulation of the South American country, which will be one of the most negative outcomes and most difficult to overcome. Infrastructure can be repaired and capital returned, but the effect of mass emigration becomes irreversible.

Gone are the most daring, the most prepared and probably the most discontented. As in Cuba, the incessant flight of nationals leaves a lethargic population and a country easier to control. Those of us who stay must get used to the farewells and absences. Few of those who leave end up returning.

“If you don’t like it leave,” the acolytes of the Plaza of the Revolution have repeated for decades, and now Nicolás Maduro also embraces that contempt and mocks the emigrants who are “washing dishes in Miami.” For both regimes, exile is a thing of the weak, the refuge of the selfish who did not want to incinerate their lives in the crucible of the cause.

In both cases, the official discourse has passed through denying the escape, applying denigrating adjectives to those who flee, and blaming third parties for the incessant departure of nationals. Both Caracas and Havana also shrug off concern for their exiles, whom they see only as potential senders of remittances, but not as citizens with rights.

Mass emigration is a bloodletting that weakens any country. Every Venezuelan who now wanders the streets of Bogotá, Quito or Rio de Janeiro is a life project that was lost to his homeland.

A Discreet Test of Internet for Mobile Phones Unleashes Frustrations

A young man connected to the wifi network in Havana. (EFE)

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 15 August 2018 — A young woman was talking on the phone in a café when someone at the next table overheard the conversation. In a few minutes everyone in the place had their eyes glued to their cellphones to test the mobile internet they’d heard about in that private dialogue. The Telecommunications Company of Cuba (Etecsa) did not say a word, but at 11 am on Tuesday morning thousands of customers across the country knew that it was the moment they had been waiting for, for years.

Neither the official website of Etecsa, the state communications monopoly, nor its public communication office revealed that tests were being undertaken of the web connection; it was only uncovered by independent journalism sites and private accounts on the social networks. Thus, after two decades of delay and surrounded by institutional secrecy, Cubans peered into the World Wide Web from their cell phones. The experience was exciting but the technical problems generated more frustration than hope.

Congestion preventing the opening of web pages, continuous crashes causing the loss of data signals to phones, and an inability to see the images in applications with multimedia content were some of the most common difficulties suffered by thirsty netizens who expected to set sail in the virtual world, but were barely able splash on the shore of the WWW.

“I’ve spent 20 minutes and I have not been able to open a single digital site,” complained a boy who had learned about the “pilot test” through a friend who works at Etecsa. “They told the employees not to say anything but everyone who has a friend spread the word,” he says. By the end of the day, he had managed to “enter Facebook Messenger and write a couple of messages,” in addition to reading “half of an article, because it wouldn’t completely load,” from a newspaper in Florida.

The disappointed young man was only nine when, in February 2011, the Alba-1 submarine cable connected Cuba with Venezuela. At that time the majority of Etecsa users thought that the Internet was around the corner, but mismanagement and the ruling party’s fear that citizens would actively launch themselves on the web delayed connectivity.

After that came a long period of concealment and evasions. Official voices insisted that the government was going to opt for the “social use” of the new technologies, but it maintained prices for web browsing that had no relationship to national salaries. Wi-Fi zones were also born, a last attempt to delay the arrival of the web in the private space, but at least this addressed millions of people’s the appetite for communication and need for contact.

Connectivity policy has focused on delaying the moment when customers are alone, in the privacy of their homes or in a remote spot far from the public wireless access areas, in front of a screen where they can interact and through which they can publish and be heard. But Etecsa’s arguments were running out, its customers ceased to be convinced by old excuse of the US embargo and the demands for internet on mobile phones became a clamor.

In the end, the clumsy state company — one of the least efficient in the world — has announced that before the end of the year it will enable access to the web from prepaid mobile phones. Postpaid users and some privileged officials or official journalists have been enjoying this opportunity for months, but their opinions on the quality of navigation are very negative.

“It’s hopelessly slow,” says a young journalism graduate who works at a local media outlet with a quota of mobile phones connected to the web. “They have asked us to defend the Revolution on social networks but at this speed it is very difficult,” he says. The basic use this information professional has made of the connection is limited to “exchanging messages by WhatsApp and trying two frustrated video conferences in IMO.”

After yesterday’s experience, spoiled by slowness and technical problems, customers now wait for Etecsa to make an open announcement on the implementation schedule for the service and on the rates for data packages. They also want guarantees of functionality since “for something so bad I’m not going to pay as if it were really internet access,” a woman in the Etecsa office stressed this Tuesday .

The state communications monopoly is in trouble. It has millions of customers tired of waiting and many of them, on August 14, peeked into the network through their phones. Now they want to repeat the experience more efficiently and with complete freedom.

Athletes and Air Conditioners

Air conditioners pile up at Havana’s Jose Marti airport. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Bogota/Havana — Flight 254 climbs over Bogota on a cold, gray morning. Inside the plane members of the Cuban delegation is traveling back to Havana, after participating in the Central American and Caribbean Games held in Barranquilla, Colombia. For more than three hours, the restless athletes fill their area of the craft with conversations — which cross from one side of the aisle to the other — and that revolve, basically, around one issue: the purchases they have made to take home to the Island.

Other travelers flying on Avianca Airlines, on Tuesday, encountered more than twenty athletes dressed in blue uniforms marked with the flag with the single star. The composition of the group was heterogeneous. They were young people in perfect physical shape who evidently participated in the competitions; others with gray hair and the appearance of coaches, and third parties who were neither one nor the other, but who acted as guards.

As the plane broke through the dense layer of clouds over the Colombian capital a question broke the hypnotic silence of the ascent. “Hey, were you able to buy the split (air conditioner)?” an athlete sitting in row 11 loudly asks another, three rows back. The answer was also loud enough for everyone to hear. “Yes, I bought it with no problems, and also the bicycle and the parts that I need for the bike.” The brief dialogue triggered an avalanche of comments in the same style.

During the entire time the plane spent in the air, the group did not exchange a single word about the sports competition, the medals won, or the hard struggle for Cuba to come in second, after having lost the event’s scepter for the first time in almost fifty years. The contest they discussed was another. The protagonist was the game against the clock to be able to “leave the village and reach the markets” nearby, according to one of the athletes, or “to find where they sell things more cheaply to make the money stretch,” said another.

The jackpot, what really excited them and elicited grins, was not, for many of these young talents, to win the gold, silver or bronze, but to be able to return home with products and devices that will improve their quality of life. One boasted of having been able to “lift the suitcase a little bit with my hand” so that it did not register its whole weight during the airline check-in.

“I told the employee that they were bicycle parts although they are for a motorbike because it is easier to get them through,” boasted another. “They let me bring three suitcases and the extra they charged me I will get back quickly, because everything I brought is worth a lot more in Havana,” added an older man who seemed to be the manager of some sport. Beside him, a man with a military haircut and the same sports suit as the rest of the delegation listened without opening his mouth, but the backpack he had placed in the overhead compartment could barely be closed.

The plane began to circle over Havana. “We have to wait because we have been informed that the airport is closed for operations,” the captain informed the plane. While the passengers peered out through the windows at the same landscape repeated over and over, the athletes exchanged the latest recommendations for dealing with their luggage. “I’m going to pass the screening because I still do not have an import for this year, but I need you to take through the two phones I brought,” he asked one of his row mates.

Finally, the flight touched down and after the long line for immigration came the most anticipated moment for the anxious athletes: picking up their luggage on the belt. On one side of the conveyor, an employee of Customs shouted loudly that the AC units and televisions must exit through a small door that leads to the room where they scan each package to check its interior. The sports delegation was completely crammed in there.

Then an air conditioner came out, followed by another and then several more. The boxes were piling up, smiles lit faces, some took selfies in front of the growing mountain of appliances. Still, nobody was talking about medals.

It was time to exit to José Martí International Airport’s crowded waiting room. There were whole families waiting with babies or the elderly in wheelchairs. Screams, commotion and a woman in tears telling an athlete that seemed to be her son: “I knew you were going to bring it,” as she touches the box with the air conditioner with the relief of who imagines nights without sweating in a room kept in the comfortable 70s.

The scene repeats itself. The members of the sports delegation are hugging their relatives and distributing the first gifts. The tourists who have arrived on the same flight understand less and less. “Why do they have to bring those things?” asks a surprised Chilean who has come for a cousin’s bachelorette party. Nobody answers him.

The Country of ‘Wificulties’

Cubans connect to the internet on state-owned Wi-Fi networks. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 21 July 2018 — A small insect falls on they keyboard of my laptop, a few minutes later there’s another one while a third lands on my neck. A few yards away, a well-known filmmaker tries to block the sun shining on his screen and a lady screams some intimacies while videoconferencing with a family member who has emigrated. A stray cat approaches my bag and demands food, but I didn’t bring any, as I’ve come to a wifi access area only a few yards from my house.

I’ve been lucky enough to claim a bench, even if it doesn’t have any back, and after an hour of navigating my lower back is demanding some support. Then I move to an area near the staircase of a building, checking beforehand that there is no balcony over my head to be sure that some resident won’t throw water or food scraps onto my computer. I have found a good place on the stairs and my spine now has the relief of a wall to lean against.

After a few minutes I start to sense an unpleasant smell. Evidently someone used a nearby bush as a public toilet and my ideal “office” loses all its charm with that stench. I move somewhere else. Some children are playing baseball with an improvised bat and I put myself in a position where my screen is not in danger, but the sun is advancing towards the area and I calculate that I have half an hour before “the Indian” catches me.

The sky clouds over but now the battery is telling me it has less than 15% charge left. There are no outlets nearby and nobody who “resells” a little energy – a business that would be very lucrative to install in these wifi areas. So I adjust the screen brightness to save the battery, but with all the light around me I can barely see a thing. I manage to post a couple of messages in Twitter, check my inbox, and look over a contribution that has arrived for our daily newspaper, 14ymedio.

A drop of rain falls between the “D” and “F” keys. I have been lucky, it’s tiny and hasn’t managed to slip through the crack that would let it get inside to the circuits, the electrical contacts and, perhaps, the motherboard. My face reflects my fright as I wipe off the moisture and close the laptop. Looking around me, I see that while I’ve been focused on web pages and social networks, a stalker has sat down nearby and released his anxieties all over a bench.

I save everything and seek reliable shelter until the downpour passes. Under a small roof other websurfers talked about the news they’ve read, the messages they managed to receive before the rains came, and a half-finished visa application, but that was it until the sun came out again.

In spite of the wificulties, people squeeze the maximum out of the wireless signal they pick up with their phones, tablets and computers. The makeshift internet “café” hums with life all day, although for every connection hour users pay the excessive price of one convertible peso (CUC), more than half a day’s wages for the average state worker. Any thoughtful person would say that under these conditions you can’t get any work done, or do anything other than chat with friends or laugh at the memes. Every day, however, professionals of all kinds extract the most they can out of these places, sun, rain, insects and hungry cats notwithstanding.

The Cuba of Humboldt and Ruiz Urquiola

Ariel Ruiz Urquiola believes that the authorities want to seize his family’s farm. (Facebook)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 5 July 2018 — At the entrance to Humboldt University in Berlin, an inscription in Spanish says that the statue of the German scientist Alexander von Humboldt that stands there was a gift from the University of Havana, in homage to the man who has been called “the second discoverer” of Cuba. Cuban biologist Ariel Ruiz Urquiola repeatedly passed that statue with its serene face during his time at that institution of higher learning.

In recent days the name of this young researcher, 43, has graced the covers of numerous international media, for having maintained a hunger strike for more than two weeks. With that strict fast, Ruiz Urquiola demanded his release after being sentenced to one year in prison for the alleged offense of “contempt,” in a flawed case plagued by irregularities. Thus, the scientist put his life at risk to demand freedom, using his own body as a lever of complaint against what he considered an injustice.

On Tuesday, the Cuban authorities yielded in their stubbornness and released Ruiz Urquiola. For health reasons he was granted a parole which does not totally annul his sentence, but it does permit him to return to his home and to the agro-ecological project he manages in Viñales. Although his tenacity allowed him to win this battle, he knows that the eyes of the ruling party will be watching for any false step in hopes of making him shoulder “the blame” for his public demands, putting the Government on the spot and, above all, denouncing the ecological damage that it commits in that protected area of ​​the Cuban West.

If Alexander von Humboldt lived during a time of discoveries and explorations, Ruiz Urquiola is living during a hard time of complicity on this Island. The German explorer helped to expand knowledge of the geography, flora, fauna and even the topography of a country that he himself barely knew, but more than two centuries later the Cuban scientific community is trapped between a lack of resources and excessive state control. Researchers are now evaluated based not only on their abilities and the results of their projects, but most importantly on their ideological fidelity.

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that during all the days the biologist refused to eat, there were no pronouncements of solidarity, nor even a call to review his case, on the part of functionaries, educators and staff of Cuba’s Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment. Nor did any official entity linked to agricultural production, the care of the ecosystem or the study of fauna raise a single voice to demand justice for Ruiz Urquiola.

The official media never mentioned the case, although social networks lit up with messages that demanded his prompt release and his face was a constant presence on the alternative information networks that cross the country. Meanwhile, in contrast to the silence of the national scientific community, colleagues from other parts of the world put their names to the #FreeAriel movement.

More than 200 years ago Humboldt came across a country to explore, study and report on, now Ruiz Urquiola inhabits a nation where researchers are wary of every word and prefer silence.

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

The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

Renewal of Vows: The Red Scarf

Cuban children in the ceremony where they take on the red scarf. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 14 June 2018 –Three decades later, the woman is facing a familiar scene. A row of children dressed in their elementary school uniforms receive the new red scarf that replaces the blue one they had previously knotted around their necks. Like a déjà vu, she listens to her daughter repeat the same slogan she shouted out in her own childhood. The little girl, one knee on the ground, swears to follow the example of Ernesto Che Guevara, just like her mother had promised to do so long ago.

The school’s morning assembly started early this Thursday, June 14, the day chosen for the initiation of students who completed the third grade. They now become part of the José Martí Pioneers Organization and have started down a path where ideological excesses and political manipulation will follow them forever. The ceremony has all the traces of a religious initiation, almost mystical, despite of its being centered on an atheist guerrilla, who this very day would have turned 90.

To conclude the moment, the loudspeakers broadcast a song dedicated to Fidel Castro at full volume. “Louder, Louder!” the school principal shouts to the students, who must sing the boring tune verse by verse. “Louder, louder to be heard up there!,” he reiterates as he points to the sky, where, he believes, his Commander-in-Chief must have gone.

The music is over, the children shout the slogan that they will repeat in the coming years: “Pioneers for Communism, we will be like Che.” Then they leave the ranks and return to the unruly games of any child. The political “renewal of vows” is over.