From Information to Action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lilliput Rebellion

Gulliver being tied by the Lilliputians (CC)

Gulliver being tied by the Lilliputians (CC)

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 5 November 2015 – Calling for austerity while living in opulence has been common practice for Cuban leaders for more than half a century. Demands to “tighten one’s belt” are brandished about by officials with fat necks and ruddy faces, who for decades haven’t known what a refrigerator with more frost than food looks like. This contradiction undoubtedly annoys those who have to divide rationed bread with a family member, or cleverly cut up a bar of soap so it will last for several weeks.

The popular unease before the contrast between words and deeds could have led the journalist Alexander A. Ricardo to publish a metaphorical but accurate text in the opinion section of the Havana Tribune*. Under the title The Travels of Gulliver Junior, the opinion column refers to someone who “is seen in giant enjoyment of the shores of the Mediterranean, or as a dwarf adventurer without a problem in his life, in his visa.”

The allusion in the column was published some months ago when Antonio Castro, one of the sons of the former Cuban president, was discovered by a hidden camera while on vacation in Bodrum, Turkey. A place he arrived at from the Greek island of Mykonos on board a 150-foot yacht, and where he stayed with his companions in luxury suites.

It is hard not to relate the opulent life of Fidel Castro’s son and the calls for savings being launched today by his uncle from the dais, with the ironic phrase of the journalist: “Once he gets home he says nothing, He deceives his countrymen with stories about shipwrecks.” The similarities between the symbolic history and the real-life story have made the article go viral, and it is spreading via email within Cuba.

The coincidences grow when A. Ricardo writes, “he returned to weigh anchor, this time for the north, where the cold climate distanced him long ago,” which coincides with the onward journey of the ex-president’s son to New York, where he was also photographed, sheathed in sportswear and with a teddy bear in his hands.

“Thanks to his father Gulliver Junior travels quite often,” reads the text appearing in the newspaper of the Cuban capital. That is, because of the precarious economic situation imposed on millions of Cubans by his progenitor, now he can give himself luxuries that exceed what could be paid for with the retired father’s pension. But the Lilliputians are also getting tired. Could this journalist’s article be a sign of that indignation not at all diminutive?

*Translator’s note: A newspaper published by the Provincial Committee of the Cuban Communist Party

I no longer want to find you, Camilo

Flowers for Camilo Cienfuegos at a primary school in Havana's Plaza district (14ymedio)

Flowers for Camilo Cienfuegos at a primary school in Havana’s Plaza district (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 28 October 2015 — The wall of the Malecon tastes of salt and is rough to the touch. Standing on it, my school uniform splashed by the waves, every October of my childhood I threw a bouquet of flowers into the sea. The tribute was addressed to a man who had died fifteen years before I was born. His face was on the walls and in schoolbooks, with an enormous smile beneath a broad-brimmed hat. Those were the days when I still dreamed of meeting Camilo Cienfuegos.

The story, repeated to the point of exhaustion in school assemblies and official propaganda, told of a plane that disappeared while the Commander was flying between the cities of Camagüey and Havana. For the children of my generation it was an almost magical enigma. We believed that one day we would find him, a bearded jokester, somewhere in the Cuban geography. It was just a matter of time, we thought.

But the years passed and on this long and narrow island there has never been detected even a single piece of that twin-engine Cessna. New technologies burst into everyone’s lives, satellites search every inch of the planet, and mythical cities, submerged or buried, are found all over the globe. But of Camilo, not a single clue.

The illusion that he would return to unite “the highest leadership of the country” was giving way to another desire. In the mid-eighties I heard talk of Camilo Cienfuegos as the hope for change. “If he were here, none of this would have happened,” the elderly intoned. “He wasn’t a communist,” my grandfather said.

Once again we want to find alive the hero of Yaguajay, but this time to lead our dissatisfaction and to help us overcome our fear.

In the Special Period the urge to discover at least a vestige of that tailor-turned-guerrilla forcefully resurfaced. We speculated that if the circumstances of his death were unraveled, Fidel Castro’s government would fall like a house of cards. The best-kept secret of the Revolutionary era would also be its end. But even in those years the mystery was not solved.

A few days ago a little girl reminded her mother she needed to take a bouquet of flowers to school to throw into the sea on the day this Havanan not yet turned 30 disappeared. A second later the girl asked, “But is he dead, or is he not dead?” Her mother explained the official version in a bored voice, ending with a categorical, “Yes, he’s dead… he is not breathing.”

The mystery has collapsed. Not because we found answers, but because we got tired of waiting for them. Right now, nothing would change because we know that Camilo Cienfuegos is alive somewhere – with his graying beard – unless it is scientifically proven that the official version is true. Nor would there be a great commotion on finding out his death was an assassination order by his own compañeros from the Sierra Maestra.

Time, implacable, has ended up burying Camilo.

Camilo Cienfuegos. (CC)

Camilo Cienfuegos. (CC)

The Faces Of The Cuban Dream

The musical On Your feet! based on the lives of Gloria and Emilio Estefan. (Matthew Murphy)

The musical On Your feet! based on the lives of Gloria and Emilio Estefan. (Matthew Murphy)

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 20 October 2015 — “What is the Cuban dream?” he asked, as one inquires about the hour, the quality of the coffee, or the afternoon’s weather forecast. Around the table we all remained silent in the face of this question launched by the visitor. More than answering him about the country desired, the provocation made me think about the need for our dreams to reflect that faces of those who hold them, the people who inhabit them.

I remembered this conversation last Saturday, while enjoying the musical On your feet! in a crowded theater on Broadway in New York. Based on the lives of Gloria and Emilio Estefan, the work transcends the story of a Cuban couple making their way in the competitive world of entertainment in the United States, to become a story of nostalgia, tenacity and success.

Before the spectator’s eyes, a story develops beginning with the pain of exile and memories of a life left behind on the island. A reference that is maintained throughout this play, currently being staged at the Marquis Theater in the Big Apple. Directed by Jerry Mitchel, the musical successfully details the transformation of sadness into energy and of the melancholy of emigration into entrepreneurship.

On your feet! is primarily a celebration of Cuban identity that manages to get the audience out of their seats and dancing, with tears still running down their faces. Through the excellent musical performances of Ana Villafañe in the role of Gloria Estafan, and the rest of the cast, the play captivates without becoming cloying, and connects the audience with the culture of our country beyond the stereotypes.

Ana Villafañe and Josh Segarra in the roles of Gloria and Emilio Estefan (On Your Feet!)

Ana Villafañe and Josh Segarra in the roles of Gloria and Emilio Estefan (On Your Feet!)

The musical deserves a prolonged applause not only for its artistic virtues and superb staging, but above all, because it exalts values our society urgently needs to reclaim. It is about the lives of people who inspire in way very different from the models imposed by the Cuban government’s official propaganda. Gloria and Emilio do not provoke uncritical appreciation, fear, docile gratitude, but rather the desire to imitate them… to overcome.

Someday, when Cuban children open the schoolbooks that teach them to read, they will no longer see individuals dressed in military uniform with rifles on their shoulders. Instead of that excessive worship of men at arms, we will find real images of success, of social, scientific and cultural achievements. In those pages the real models will appear, the faces of the Cuban dream.

Cuba: In The Country of Solidarity, There Are No Foreigners

Graffiti painted on a wall and later erased in Havana. (14ymedio)

Graffiti painted on a wall (left) and later erased (right) in Havana. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 12 October 2015 — Pepes, Yumas and tourists are some of the names we give to those who visit our country. For many Cubans, these travelers are their main source of income, through accommodation, transportation, dance and language classes. Some also share classrooms at the university, or work in a joint venture. However, in most cases their stay is brief, they are passing through, for only a few days or months. What happens when they come to stay?

A painting on a Havana wall addresses the contradiction between the official discourse that prides itself on the solidarity of a nation, but one where the immigrant has no place. This drawing of Che Guevara with a contentious quote – “In the homeland of solidarity there are no foreigners” – lasted just a few hours in its makeshift place, before the censor arrived in the form of a blue brushstroke to cover it over. For the government, when the foreigners arrive on their cruises, stay a few nights and leave their cold hard cash in the state coffers, everything seems fine. It is a whole different thing when they decide to come and stay. Then, the nationalistic hostility that characterizes the Cuban system shows itself.

Cuban immigration law is perhaps one of the strictest on the planet for a foreigner who settles in the national territory. For decades, living here was a privilege allowed only to the “comrades” of Eastern Europe, apprentice guerrillas, and political refugees from Latin American dictatorships. Diplomatic personnel and some chosen academics completed the map of natives of other countries who would stay in Cuba more or less permanently.

The island ceased to be a country of immigrants, where the crucible of identity joined together cultures far and near. Chinese, French, Arabs, Haitians, Spaniards and Poles, among many others, brought their customs, culinary recipes, and entrepreneurial initiatives to achieve the wonder of diversity. Today it is rare to see gathered around family tables people who were not born here.

At the end of 2014, the National Bureau of Statistics announced that the number of foreign residents in Cuba in 2011 represented just 0.05% of the population. A figure that contrasts with the 128,392 foreigners – 1.3% of the population – that we shared the island with in 1981. Two factors explain the sharp drop in foreign residents: the implosion, in the 1990s, of the socialist camp, whence the “technicals” of yesteryear; and, above all, because our country long ago ceased to be a nation of opportunities.

While foreign residents were leaving, temporary visitors were becoming an economic “lifeline” in the face of an increasing material misery. These latter were, for a long time, the only ones with hard currency, and with it the ability to buy shampoo in the “diplotiendas” (diplomat stores), and to experience the enormous luxury of enjoying a cold beer in a hotel bar. The tourist became the Prince Charming of many young Cuban women’s dreams, the son-in-law that every father-in-law wanted, and the preferred tenant of rooms for rent.

Even today foreigners are seen by many Cubans as wallets with legs who walk the streets, which must be emptied of every coin. It is difficult for a foreigner in Cuba to determine to what extent the friendliness they come across in the streets is the natural kindness of our people, versus a histrionic performance the objective of which is to get one’s hand in their pocket.

Cubans have lost the habit of living – equal to equal – with “the other.” Sharing jobs with immigrants, accepting that people speak different languages on a public bus. Our kitchens have been impoverished by lack of contact with other gastronomic experiences, we have become less universal and markedly more “islanders” in the worst sense of the word. We have lost the capacity to tolerate and welcome other ways of doing, speaking and living.

How will we react when our country becomes a destination for immigrants? Will they be condemned to the worst jobs? Will xenophobic groups emerge that reject those who come from overseas? Will there be NGOs to protect them? Programs to help them integrate? Politicians who don’t fear them? All these questions need to be answered in a shorter time frame than we think. Cuba could again be, very soon, a nation of people who come from many places.

Cuba and Mick Jagger’s Kiss

Mick Jagger in Deauville in 2014. (Georges Biard / Wikimedia Commons)

Mick Jagger in Deauville in 2014. (Georges Biard / Wikimedia Commons)

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 5 October 2015 – We never got to hear Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston on our national stages. Freddie Mercury died without touching down in Havana, and when The Beatles broke up, we were a country where English music was considered ideological diversionism. We followed the career of Elvis Presley from a distance and the charismatic Amy Winehouse slammed the door on life without stepping foot on this island. However, now we are about to regain part of what was lost: Mick Jagger’s emblematic mouth is here, the eternal youth of The Rolling Stones has arrived.

While the analysts debate, looking for signs of change in the Cuban political or diplomatic scene, transformations are capricious and take another direction. This country is not going to change itself into a new nation because John Kerry visited, nor because of the third visit by a pope in less than two decades. But Cuba is changing when people like this British rocker, icon of good music and of the greatest possible irreverence, touch down in Havana.

The vocalist, 72, has made his way through the streets of Havana leaving a trail of incredulity and beating hearts. It is not, admittedly, the excitement provoked by Beyoncé or Rihanna with their escapades in this theme park of the past, but Jagger’s visit has more profound connotations. For several generations of Cubans he represents the forbidden, an attitude toward life that was denied us by an obsessive police control.

For a political system that tried to form the “New Man,” with a Spartan spirit, “correct” and obedient, this skinny guy with his turbulent life signified the anti-model, what we must not imitate. However, the laboratory man hawked by the pedagogical manuals didn’t work out… and Mick Jagger won the battle against the prototype of the militant boy, hair cut short and willing to denounce his own family.

A friend close to seventy came out into the streets this Sunday with the energy of girl celebrating her fifteenth birthday. “Where is he?” she asked the guard at Hotel Santa Isabel, where the official news reported the idol of her youth to be staying, but the man gave her no details. Like an obsessed schoolgirl, she walked all the streets around the hotel looking in the windows, to try to see the lean figure of the leader of the Rolling Stones.

Mick Jagger won the battle against the prototype of the militant boy, hair cut short and willing to denounce his own family

The lady displayed none of these reactions toward the American secretary of state, nor before the Bishop of Rome. For her, all these exalted visitors were in the range of the possible, no longer surprising nor moving. But Jagger… Jagger is something else. “I don’t want to die without seeing him,” she told me on the phone, with the conviction of one who will not tolerate leaving this world without “closing an era,” putting the capstone on her “best years,” she told me.

My friend infected me a little with her enthusiasm, I must confess. No sermon in the Plaza of the Revolution, no speech to open an embassy, caused my stomach to jump this way, a sudden feeling of living in historic times. A nervousness that will last until we see the legendary British band play next March at the Latin American stadium, in front of a crowd that will try to recover its lost years.

Jagger is much more than the living legend of rock and roll presented by the media. This beanpole, all mouth, all energy, all life, embodies a time that they snatched from us, an existence that we could have had and that they took from us.

It seems a shame to me that the political analysts don’t realize it: the future Cuba could start with the Rolling Stones in Havana.

Are We Cubans More Unruly Than Other Peoples?

Telephone with the handset ripped off

Telephone with the handset ripped off

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 30 September 2015 – “Nobody takes care of anything,” raged the lady in line at the cash register of a State butcher shop. She was referring to those who leave the refrigerators open or who put their shopping baskets on the glass counters. However, she didn’t seem to notice the lack of air conditioning, the stench coming from some of the freezers where the goods were spoiled, or the single employee taking payments, while the others looked on with their arms crossed. The customers are to blame, according to the feisty woman.

Social indiscipline has become a recurring theme in reports and interviews in the national media. Vandalism is blamed for everything, from problems with public transport buses to the deplorable state of planted areas. Official journalists raise the accusing finger more and more against the pillage, while barely addressing the educational and political system that has molded these citizens so bent on looting and destruction.

Social behavior is shaped by one’s environment. On a spotless floor, a clean sidewalk, in a cared-for city, many will imitate the environment and avoid dirtying, destroying or degrading it. Context greatly influences people’s attitude toward public spaces and common goods. But when the environment is dirty, assaulted by carelessness and becomes hostile, those who inhabit it will neither respect nor care for it.

Cubans are no more unruly than other human beings and yet, right now, a park filled with children’s play structures needs to be guarded like a bank, so that the swing seats, the iron from the carousels or the ropes from the climbing nets aren’t stolen. In poorly lit areas of the city people defecate or urinate, microdumps rise in thousands of corners and a stream of dirty water can fall from any balcony, directly on pedestrians below.

When the environment is dirty, assaulted by carelessness and becomes hostile, and those who inhabit it will neither respect nor care for it

The situation has gone on for so long that many have come to believe that it is in the DNA of our identity to not care for our surroundings. “This city couldn’t have a subway, because imagine the stink in those tunnels with people taking care of all their needs down there,” states a gentleman with the tint of a shabby official, while waiting at a bus stop.

With his words, the man suggested that we Cubans cannot enjoy the privileges of modernity and comfort, because we are unable to maintain them. However, this same “unredeemable exterminator” that we have become can get on a plane, go to New York or Berlin, and in two weeks in those place be throwing trash in the bins, not lighting up in public places, and cleaning the mud off their shoes before entering an office.

Vandalism is a problem present in all societies. Laws and control regulate it and keep it in check, but there it is. It is a part of our human nature that a moment of rage makes us take a blade and inscribe our name on a recently painted wall, or rip the fabric of a movie theater seat. Fines and other penalties should keep this vulture we all shelter within us from getting out of hand.

However, the context has to encourage people to care for things. It is not enough to call for discipline and formal education, the individual has to feel that it’s worth the trouble to preserve his or her surroundings. A street full of potholes, a late and overloaded bus, a sidewalk plunged into darkness, its single streetlight broken years ago, are the ideal components for depredation and pillage.

Many, like the lady who complained at the butcher’s, no longer perceive the scenario of constant attacks on the rights of consumers and citizens that our society presents. So accustomed to the abuse, the inefficiencies, the breakage and the high prices, they throw all the blame on those “unruly Cubans” who couldn’t “live anywhere without destroying it.”