Cult of Personality in Cuban Parliament


The cover of the book “Raul Castro: A Man in Revolution ‘Nikolai Leonov.

Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 15 July 2015 — The cult of personality has a thousand ways of showing itself. From the face that stares out from every schoolroom wall, to the flattery with which the government journalists refer to certain officials. It would seem, however, that the times of greatest excess in the veneration of a figure had been left behind, to the extent that the memory of Fidel Castro has languished since his forced retirement. However, the pernicious practice continues here, with its exaggeration and ridiculousness.

On Tuesday, the entire National Assembly of People’s Power dedicated itself to the presentation of the book Raul Castro: A Man in Revolution, written by the Russian Nikolai Leonov. A special session of the Parliament had as its sole purpose to attend the launch of this volume, published by Capital San Luis, and with more than 80 biographical photos, some of them previously unpublished.

Out of modesty, or because he had to lead the 11th Plenum of the Cuban Communist Party Central Committee, Raul Castro did not attend the presentation, but this does not detract from the gesture’s devotional character. This was compounded by the use of parliamentarians for purposes not included in their functions. How much did it cost for those deputies who had travel to the Palace of Conventions? With so many problems facing the country, which affect millions of people, how could a day of “the official organ of State power” be squandered to sing the praises of a single man?

Situations like yesterday are proof that the pernicious cult of personality remains intact among us, fostered by those who idolize a few and those who swell with vanity at the flattery.

Tsipras’ “Betrayal”

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, during an interview with state television. (Alexandros Vlachos / EFE)

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, during an interview with state television. (Alexandros Vlachos / EFE)

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 14 July 2015 — A week ago he was a hero lauded by the official Cuban media, today he is a political corpse many fear to mention. Alexis Tsipras negotiated and lost. Sanity has been imposed over his his initial bravado, and the pact he is about to accept has turned him into a traitor to his own politics. The critical voices within his party are already being heard about the agreement he has closed with the Eurozone, and Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution is keeping an embarrassed silence.

A third rescue, which will be around 86 billion euros, has been approved to pull Greece out of the quagmire. The money will come accompanied by conditions that force the Greek government to raise taxes, cut pensions and engage in privatizations. Far from that intransigent posture of the man who was congratulated by Fidel Castro, “for his brilliant political victory,” in the recent referendum.

Tsipras has accepted what until recently he rejected. All his incendiary nationalistic rhetoric has ended in a pragmatic gesture of compliance. Political greatness? Awareness of defeat? A final grimace of goodwill before heading out the backdoor of power in Greece? It’s hard to know. Most importantly he has chosen not to separate Greece from Europe, to exorcise the demon of the “Grexit,” and in passing has disappointed all those who incited him to lead an entire nation to economic suicide.

The lines in front of the ATMs, the empty shelves, and the growing fear in the population have done more than all the winks of solidarity from other corners of the world that fell on this Greek, though the crisis has not marked his face with a single wrinkle, there is no ‘tic’ of concern. Even at the agreement table, where he spent his last political capital, he has been seen as imperturbable, beautiful, young.

The adversaries of the European Union will accuse him of having sold the country to foreign interests and those who never believed him will look on him with pity while muttering “we told you so.”

Now the diatribe rains down on him. The adversaries of the European Union will accuse him of having sold the country to foreign interests, and those who never believed him will look on him with pity while muttering “we told you so.” There is no way this Greek play where the Syriza party leader is the protagonist ends up as something more than a political tragedy for his party and himself.

Like a sublime statue, Tsipras has ended up trapped in the marble of his verticality; the populism he himself unleashed has devoured him. Some promises meant to charm the voters, when put into practice made the country fall below the point it had reached until now. The pantomime of a referendum was the ultimate gesture of vanity before reneging on his positions.

Tsipras will be diluted in the coming weeks, when the parliaments of the European nations, including Greece, discuss the agreement and approve its implementation. Every step toward getting the rescue and complying with its demands will extinguish this figure that dazzles a part of a nation with his rhetoric.

None of those who applauded his daring will pat him on the back to acknowledge he has chosen for his country and not for himself. For them, Tispras is the uncomfortable reminder of what might have been, the missed opportunity to project, through Greece, their own vendettas.

Carnival Cruise Lines, A Paradigm of Our Times

A cruise ship from the American company Carnival Cruise Lines (14ymedio)

A cruise ship from the American company Carnival Cruise Lines (Carnival)

Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 9 July 2015 – There are several ways to react when faced with another person’s affluence. One of them is the one taught to us by the Castro regime from the time we were little, and that is based on anger and stigmatizing the prosperous. A Robin Hood-like intransigence, the point of which is to snatch from the other person the “excess” or whatever he “has too much of.” This animosity toward anyone who makes progress, accumulates property, or enjoys certain material comforts, has ended up becoming an inseparable component of our idiosyncrasy, although the times seem to be changing.

“I am never going to go on a cruise, but the more they come… the more we gain,” a retired man said yesterday, chewing tobacco and wearing a shirt so worn out his skin showed through. The official news just announced that the US company Carnival Cruise Lines received authorization from Washington to travel to Cuba, and the gentleman was expressing his own opinion about the luxuries enjoyed by others. This symbol of a capitalism of pleasures, fun and wastefulness is about to dock in Havana and it is noteworthy that officialdom will receive it not with shouts or slogans, but rather will welcome it.

Cubans don’t appear scandalized when we talk about these floating behemoths that will arrive with sumptuousness and money, a lot of money. Rather, people calculate the benefit involved when the giant of the seas touches land and a flood of tourists descend with bulging wallets and overflowing sunscreen. Restaurant owners near the Port of Havana are rubbing their hands and tchotchke sellers are hoping to improve their sales.

“Carnival Cruise Lines is the last fig leaf that has been removed and it lays bare their shameless fascination with money, their own and others’.”

Others, like the gentleman with the worn out shirt and the chewing tobacco, will probably not benefit at all from Carnival Line’s arrival. However, unlike in the past when he had spit with anger at these “exploitative bourgeois who come to leave us their trash,” now he seems disposed to cope with such an exhibition of ostentation and glamor. Asked about his tolerance for others’ luxuries, the old man explained that, “There are people here who live like that, so grandly, but they’re up there,” as he pointed a finger skyward to indicate the nomenklatura. “Here the difference is that we will see them coming by sea and they won’t be hiding what they have,” he said.

To preserve the succulent assets associated with power, the government itself is changing its discourse regarding the wealth of others, and trying to attract those, “rich people, bourgeois, empowered,” whom they renounced and fought for decades. However, in order to reap the benefits of luxury tourism, they are sending a contradictory message to their citizens who grew up under calls for egalitarianism and austerity. Carnival Cruise Lines is the last fig leaf that has been removed and it lays bare their shameless fascination with money, their own and others’.

Emigrating in the Third Age

An old man. (Silvia Corbelle)

An old man. (Silvia Corbelle)

Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 23 June 2015 – The building where I live is like a diminutive Cuba, where the larger country appears represented with its vicissitudes and hopes. Fourteen stories that at times offer a biopsy of reality or a representative fragment of life outside. For years, the emigration of young people has marked the life of this ugly concrete block, constructed 30 years ago by some optimistic microbrigadistas* in order to put a roof over their children’s heads. The majority of these children, now men and women, do not live on the island today. However, the exodus has also spread to a worrying extent among those of the third age.

A few weeks ago in the hallway I stumbled upon a neighbor whose children left some time ago for the country to the north. Between postcards at Christmas, visits every now and then and nostalgia, the family has tried to overcome separation and the pain of absence. The man of the family, now retired and almost 70, commented to me that he was selling his apartment. “I’m leaving,” he said, smiling from ear to ear. Another retiree who overheard, spat out derisively, “You’re nuts! Why are you leaving if all that’s left to you are ‘two shaves,’?” alluding to the possible brevity of the existence ahead of him.

Not to be outdone, the mocked one replied, “Yes, it’s true, all that’s left for me is ‘two shaves,’ but I want them to be with a Gillette.” With a pension of barely 20 CUC a month, a home that every day shows the passage of time and the lack of resources to repair it, the future emigrant won’t be stopped by gray hairs or old age. What is making so many seniors choose to relocate abroad despite age, health and the uprooting of their lives? They also feel the lack of opportunities, the day-to-day difficulties, and – most significantly – end up concluding that the social project to which they gave their youth has defrauded and abandoned them.

They feel the lack of opportunities and the day-to-day difficulties, and have ended up concluding that the social project to which they gave their youth has defrauded and abandoned them

“All I want is a peaceful old age, without having to stand in line all the time,” the determined old man explained to me. For him, his country is synonymous with shortages, problems getting food, an old age of racing to get potatoes and fighting against those who want to get ahead of him in the line to buy eggs. The apartment he built with his own hands for the enjoyment of his children now has peeling walls and a clogged toilet. “With my pension I can’t arrange to get things fixed,” he detailed.

Even the elderly are packing their suitcases on this island… and from the scale model that is this Yugoslav-style building, old people are also saying goodbye.

* Translator’s note:
For more information about microbrigades see page 26 of this report by Cuban architect Mario Coyula.

The Landscape Before the Storm

The headquarters of the State phone company ETECSA in Havana. (14ymedio)

The headquarters of the State phone company ETECSA in Havana. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 15 June 2015 – Before the downpour there is a scent that crosses the city. It is the premonition of water, the anticipation of the cloudburst. The birds fly to their nests and the most cautious seek a doorway where they can shelter until the rain passes. This impression of something approaching is being felt lately about a possible opening of Internet connectivity for all Cubans. There is nothing concrete to point to confirm our massive entry into cyberspace, but the gusts of impatience can be felt in the air.

The topic of the web of networks has reached significant prominence in the official discourse of the last half year. Barack Obama’s administration had to “make a move” to wake up the bureaucrats in the Ministry of Information and Communications, who are trained to go on the defensive. With the January 16th implementation of a package of flexibility measures, outstanding among them links to the sector of new technologies and connectivity, the White House has set more than one person scuttling on this island.

Four years after the installation of the fiber optic cable between Cuba and Venezuela, it seems that officialdom can no longer justify why we are among the countries with the least connectivity on the entire planet. On the other hand, American companies such as Verizon or AT&T, breathing down the neck of Cuba’s ETECSA phone company, are working as a catalyst to implement a data service that allows the Cuban telephone monopoly to hold on to the national market.

Conveniently, a document was leaked that puts into writing the national strategy for the development of broadband connectivity infrastructure in Cuba

The lesson of Isabel Dos Santos, the richest woman in Africa and the daughter of the Angolan president, should be keeping the dauphins of power in Cuba awake right now. They know that whoever gets a slice of the telephone and communications market will have a guaranteed fortune exceeding a lot of zeros. However, they are also aware that a company of this type requires agreements, roaming contracts, favorable rate packages, attractive offers for users. In the world we live in it can be summed up in one word: connectivity.

This reality is denied by the ideological outbursts, in the style of Abel Prieto when he claimed that he will give “free and open access to the Internet, and not to those who have money, but to those who need it to support their studies and research.” Mobile phone service alone shows that in the battle between politics and the market the latter comes out the winner. Cubacel users – save those who receive the privilege because they work for State Security or other strategic sectors – pay for it in convertible pesos. To purchase a cellphone requires the harsh practice of money in your wallet, not fidelity to any idea.

A few days ago, conveniently, a document was leaked that puts into writing the national strategy for the development of broadband connectivity infrastructure in Cuba. Despite the enthusiasm with which the text was received by those thirsting for the Internet, the deadlines proposed by the program are, at the very least, unconsidered. It talks about “reaching no less than 50% of households with access to broadband Internet by 2020,” while two years ago it was expected to have 100% connectivity “in Party organizations at the national, provincial and municipal levels, in State agencies, and in the Central Administrative Organs of the State.” It is not unlikely that right now there are people who are joining the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) in order to attain access to the vast World Wide Web.

It is not unlikely that right now there are people who are joining the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) in order to attain access to the vast World Wide Web.

On the other hand, Brett Perlmutter, director of Google Ideas, is visiting Cuba this week. His presence has been explained to the media as an exploration to “bring better Internet access to the Island.” According to a State Department official who asked to remain anonymous, “Google has made a proposal to the Cuban Government to help with the connectivity of the population,” adding, “we don’t know what they have proposed, but they have proposed something.”

Beyond what Google achieves, between official suspicion and postponements by Cuban functionaries, his presence on the Island reinforces the sense of urgency. He transmits to the Cuban Government the impression that its closing the doors to the sea of kilobytes not only is not working, but is under threat of being swept away from abroad and from within. Helium balloons, mini-satellites, WiFi antennas made from Pringles bags, clandestine wireless networks that share content, and even the irreverent weekly “Packet” of audiovisuals, are jeopardizing a structure designed for censorship, but inefficient in managing an opening.

There is a smell of rain these days. A gust of damp certitude that is wafting the bird of the Internet our way.

Art and Necessity

Installation on the Havana Malecon for the XII Havana Biennial

Installation on the Havana Malecon for the XII Havana Biennial(14ymedio)

The man approaches and pulls a fork from the work Delicatessen that is being exhibited on the Havana Malecon during the XII Havana Biennial. Nearby, two neighbors speculate that, at the end of the event, the sand used in Resaca (Hangover) will be given to the surrounding residents to repair their homes. To art appreciation are added hardships and daring, incorporating the spectators into a show they want to make their own, by taking it home and reusing it.

The arrival of the Biennial to our city is a good time to enjoy the aesthetic surprises that await us around every corner, but it also confirms the collision of art and need. Near the artworks employing major material resources the inquisitive eyes of a guard are always watching. The protected works, with their “Don’t touch” signs or surrounded by closed perimeters, abound on sidewalks and in parks, more than they should. A contrast between the interaction sought by the artists who place their works in public spaces, and the excessive protection to which they are subjected, precisely so that this public doesn’t end up taking them away in their pockets, piece by piece.

The guard who prevents vandalism or looting also adds an ideological curator who ensures that no installation, performance or show deviates from the official script. A group of watchdogs of the artistically correct impeded Tania Bruguera from entering the Museum of Fine Arts at the end of last week. These censors of free creation also forced Gorki Aguila into a car, after preventing him from hanging the face of the graffiti artist El Sexto on the same walls where he had left us his indelible signature.

Need marks each work of art of the Havana Biennial. Material need, where a screw used in some pedestal could end up in the door of a home, or in a chair or even in the bed where four people sleep every night. And the other need, that of freedom, makes us approach the art to take for ourselves a piece of its rebellion, before the guard blows his whistle and we leave, empty handed.


The Risks of Journalism

Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 21 May 2015 – If you has asked me a year ago what would be the three greatest challenges of the digital newspaper 14ymedio, I would have said repression, lack of connection to the Internet, and media professionals being afraid to work on our team. I did not imagine that the another obstacle would become the principal headache of this informative little paper: the lack of transparency in Cuban institutions, which has found us many times before a closed door and no matter how hard we knock, no one opens or provides answers.

In a country where State institutions refuse to provide the citizen with certain information that should be public, the situation becomes much more complicated for the reporter. Dealing with the secrecy turns out to be as difficult as evading the political police, tweeting “blind,” or becoming used to the opportunism and silence of so many colleagues. Information is militarized and guarded in Cuba as if there is a war of technology, which is why those who try to find out are taken, at the very least, as spies.

Belonging to an outlawed media makes the work even more problematic, and gives a clandestine character to a job that should be a profession like any other. Now, if we look at “the glass half full,” the limitation of not being able to access official spaces has freed us, in 14ymedio, from that journalism of “statements” that produces such harmful effects. To quote an official, to collect the words of a minister, or to transcribe the official proclamation of a Party leader, has been for decades the refuge of those who do not dare to narrate the reality of this country.

Lacking a press credential to enter an event, we have approached its participants in a less controlled setting, one where they have felt more free to speak

Our principal limitation has become the best incentive to seek out more creative ways of to inform. Government silence about so many issues has motivated us to find other voices that can relate what happened. Lacking a press credential to enter an event, we have approached its participants in a less controlled setting, one where they have felt more free to speak. From Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, who answered several of our questions outside the press conference where our access was denied, to employees who alert us in whispers about an act of corruption in their companies or anonymous messages that put us on the trail of an injustice.

It has also been hard to work out our true role as providers of information, which is different from the role of a judge, a human rights activist and a political opponent. It is our role to make facts visible, so that others can condemn or applaud them. In short, as journalists we have the responsibility to inform, but not the power to impute.

Nor can we justify our failings because we are outlawed, persecuted, stigmatized and rejected. No reader is going to forgive us if we are not in the exact place of history’s twists and turns.