Elections in Cuba: The Curtain Falls

Without surprises, continuity prevailed during the day. Miguel Díaz-Canel was elected president of the Republic. (EFE)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 12 October 2019 — The staging was studied carefully. This October 10 in Havana, every detail of the extraordinary session of the National Assembly obeyed a script rigorously written and, probably, many times rehearsed. In political dramaturgy, the election of a president of the Republic was the climax to consolidate the transfer of the helm of the national ship to a younger generation, under the tutelage of its predecessors.

As in a play whose ending they knew in advance, Cuban citizens watched what happened on Thursday at the Palace of Conventions with apathy and without expectations. At the end of the day it was just a formality, a set with the deputies of Parliament as actors. With the ratification of the Constitution last February and the subsequent implementation of a new Electoral Law, the positions of President of the Republic and Prime Minister, once unified to grant full powers to Fidel Castro, were separated on the Island. This Thursday was the day to begin to split these powers and to give the president of the National Assembly the reins of the State Council.

Perhaps in an attempt to prevent a single man from changing the system from above, the ‘historical generation’ divided the decision-making between several figures who, for now, are absolutely faithful to the legacy of the bearded men who once descended from the Sierra Maestra. Calculating their approaching biological end, the now octogenarians of that distant deed fear that concentrating command in one individual is a risky bet and they have chosen to put several wolves in charge of the pack so that, as a side effect, they will keep an eye on each other.

Without surprises, continuity prevailed during the day. Miguel Díaz-Canel was elected president of the Republic, if a process in which parliamentarians can only ratify a single candidacy for each of the positions can be called an “election.” Esteban Lazo remained at the head of Parliament although all political bets had pointed to the end of his leadership in the National Assembly, while the State Council was restructured with some inclusions and some departures.

In this careful representation, officiating as master of ceremonies was former president Raúl Castro, who was the first to exercise the right to vote in a clear gesture to mark the real order of relevance and the capacity of decision-making. With the control of the Communist Party in his hands, in addition to economic power and the Armed Forces in the hands of his family clan, the veteran general prepared the script to send a public message of the system’s solidity and continuity. There was just one detail he couldn’t control: the public.

In Cuban streets, the crisis in fuel supplies, the difficulties in transport and the problems in the food supply stole the starring role. So much care preparing the set and the actors of this “electoral process” turned out to be of little use; most people took advantage of this October holiday to continue looking for the exit, to find the door that leads away from this stage, be it indifference or emigration.

A Barometer To Measure Corruption In Latin America

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The perception of corruption in Latin America is very high, with Venezuela in the lead.

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 2 October 2019 — They smile, drink a few drinks and bills also slip from hand to hand as they exchange favors, alliances, offer bidding privileges and move local political waters. The scene could be located in any part of Latin America, a continent that is still gripped by corrupt practices, poor management of public funds and the buying of votes.

The tenth edition of the Global Corruption Barometer (BGC) report, prepared by the organization Transparency International, offers a thorough X-ray of this cancer that sickens institutions, businesses and everyday life. The report acknowledges that in the “last five years, great progress has been made” and cites as an example the investigation of the Lava Jato (Carwash) operation in Brazil, but also reveals that the majority of citizens think that their governments “do not do enough to address corruption.”

Among the citizens of the 18 countries of the continent consulted, Venezuelans are in the lead of those who think that corruption has increased in the last 12 month – 87% think so – followed by 66% of Dominicans and 65% of Peruvians; 52% of Colombians also share that opinion, as do 37% of the citizens of Barbados.

In addition, the report warns of the harmful and disproportionate effects that corrupt practices have on vulnerable sectors of society, especially women. Many women “are forced to perform sexual favors in exchange for obtaining public services, such as those related to healthcare and education. This practice is known as sexual extortion or ‘sextorsion’,” emphasizes the text, a situation that until now had not been included in these annual reports but whose incidence has led to its disclosure with greater force.

Of the Latin Americans who participated in these surveys, 21% also claim that most or all people linked to the press are corrupt. If those who must use the pages of newspaper and the microphones of television or radio to denounce the dirtiness of power have been bought to silence or distort those facts, impunity is even greater.

Luckily, this concomitance between power and the press, between pen and perks does not reach all reporters or media. Let us not forget that many cases of denunciation of bribes, coimas, and corruption have been known first through the newspapers and microphones of television or radio, which have forced the opening of judicial investigations and sent those involved behind bars. But there is still more to do.

What would Latin American citizens answer if they were asked about their own actions, on a daily basis, against these practices? In addition to pointing to governments, institutions, non-governmental organizations and journalists as part of this disintegration, would they be willing to recognize their own role in such an ominous practice? It doesn’t matter if it bears a toga, military ranks, the businessman’s tie, the reporter’s tape recorder or the simple overalls of a worker. We must face this monster with a thousand heads, every minute and with awareness.

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This text was originally published in the Deutsche Welle for Latin America.

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.

A Country Waiting For A Ship

It is enough for an oil tanker to be delayed for the whole country to be paralyzed. (Pdvsa.com)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 25 September 2019 — We have always been promised a Holy Grail. At the end of the 60s, the heart of all Cuba beat to the rhythm of the so-called Ten Million Ton Harvest, while in the years of the economic crisis known as the Special Period, hope focused on the Food Plan that would fill our plates and please our stomachs. Now, all the illusions of 11 million people cling to the arrival of fuel ships from Venezuela that will dock and unload their precious cargo on this Island.

The country is experiencing a new economic relapse that some consider simply a new symptom of the long illness of lack of productivity, dependence on foreign subsidies and the inability of the Cuban economic model to generate efficiency and well-being. The government calls for calm and has named the current circumstance “the conjuncture,” a word worthy of the new language to which the Plaza of the Revolution has accustomed us, which renamed the private sector as “cuentapropia*,” the unemployed as “available workers” and to the dictatorship as “democracy of a single Party.”

Beyond the names and phrases of public discourse, reality has its own vocabulary. The long lines at the bus stops, the shortages of basic products, the hours spent waiting to fill the gas tank in a service station, all of these are named in their own ways in popular conversations: “the thing is bad”, “this is for long “and” it is not easy “are some of the expressions that fill every corner of the Island. Nor is humor lacking, that escape valve from the frustration of a society that makes all kinds of parodies and puns from the “conjunctural” moment.

Despite the “Energy Revolution” that was undertaken at the beginning of this century, Cuba is now more dependent on fossil fuels than it was a decade ago. It is enough for an oil tanker to be delayed for the whole country to be paralyzed – paused – until the next ship arrives. The calamitous situation of the Venezuelan economy makes the arrival of these ships more random, to which is added the measures taken by Washington to prevent the black gold of that South American country from continuing to prop up Havana.

As so many other times in the nation’s history of the last half century, the crisis will not only be expressed in longer lines and sadder faces; in empty plates and more hopeless people… it will also influence an increase in the number of people who decide to pack and leave. In the last decades the escape and exodus have been an inseparable part of Cuban life. While the analysts discuss whether this moment is an extension or not of the economic collapse of the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, we all agree on one thing: it is the same old flight, that prolonged escape, that we are already familiar with, like the crisis itself.

*Translator’s note: Cuenta propia literally translates as ‘on one’s own account’ and is used to mean ‘self-employed.’

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This text was originally published in the Deutsche Welle for Latin America.

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.

Of Conveniences and Geographies

Cuba’s Minister of Education, Ena Elsa Velázquez Cobiella. (Twitter)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 1 September 2019 — The clumsy communication strategy of Cuba’s official functionaries on social networks stumbled again this week. This time the blunder came from Ena Elsa Velázquez, Minister of Education, who targeted her words against Cuban emigrants. “Those who do not live in Cuba have no right to criticize us,” she wrote on her Twitter account this Saturday.

Velázquez added another nuance to the segregation by geographical location to define those who are authorized to question the Island’s authorities. “We accept the criticism of those who are next to us and are willing to share our shortcomings and seek solutions,” the official stated in a tweet, which within a few hours accumulated dozens of responses

Those who do not live in Cuba have no right to criticize us. We accept the criticism of those who are next to us and are willing to share our shortcomings and seek solutions. https://t.co/MDdUZKSMup 

– Ena Elsa Velázquez Cobiella (@elsa_ena) August 30, 2019 

The mold so narrowly defined by the minister fits only a few chosen ones. According to her, criticisms may only be offered by those who live in the national territory, who are clear that they are “faithful to the cause,” who are experiencing the ordeal of material problems with a smile on their face, and, in addition, whose proposed solutions do not include regime change, criticisms of the leaders of the process, or a negative opinion of the imposed model.

Only then, with due reverence, this impeccable militant and undoubting “revolutionary” could issue an opinion that is not praise. The problem is that the examples accumulated in six decades indicate that even in that case an individual’s questioning will not be well received and that punishment awaits those who move from applause to criticism, punishments that include the execution of their reputation and the so-called “pajama plan” – defenestration.

The minister’s statements also obey a traditional strategy of the Plaza of the Revolution regarding the exile. Accept from emigrants any and all resources, remittances and support for official causes, but take from them from the possibility of deciding, influencing and criticizing the political and economic model that governs the country. A tactic that promotes, and benefits from, the dollars sent by these Cubans scattered throughout the world, but gags them with regards to internal issues.

This same pattern was followed when the Cuban diaspora was not allowed to participate with its vote in the referendum to ratify the new Constitution. If they could have had a “voice and vote” on that Constitution, the emigrants would have greatly increased the numbers of ‘No’ votes, a fact that was well known by those who cooked up a text filled with articles designed to keep the current system firmly in place in the face of any reformist process.

However, no matter how much they curtail their national rights and call on them to remain silent, Cuban exiles have a permanent presence in the life of this Island. Although many are not allowed to enter the country, create a business or buy a home in their own name, their influence is perceived in almost every aspect of everyday life.

For example, the Minister of Education should know that in the more than 10,000 schools that will host 1.7 million students this September, many of the shoes, backpacks and school supplies the students will carry will have been acquired with the money from received from emigrants or even been purchased and sent directly by a relative residing in the United States, a European country or in the wider Latin American geography.

Lately, in the upper echelons of @CubaMES seems to be a struggle to see who will express the greatest unconstitutional barbarity. It seems that the campaign began to appear in the photo of the incoming Government, and these messages seek to seduce its electorate: the Central Committee of the PCC (Cuban Communist Party).

– Eduardo Sánchez (@Eduardo_SG_) August 31, 2019

Velázquez turns a blind eye to a truth that is like a mountain. Many of the supplies that parents will have to buy and take to schools throughout the school year so that their children can study with greater comfort and dignity, are acquired with resources from the Cuban diaspora. Even a good share of the school uniforms have been bought at stores in Miami.

Why can emigrants economically underpin education but have no right to criticize its multiple shadows, its great shortcomings and its excessive ideologization? Is Velázquez aware that if the support of these Cubans around the world is cut, schools would be much more miserable places? How can you ask for silence from those who contribute a part of the budget that supports your ministry?

This Monday, when Ena Elsa Velázquez participates in a school’s morning assembly and kicks off the new school year, in front of her face there will be hundreds or thousands of objects, resources and school supplies that are the voice of those exiles she is trying to silence.

The Wireless Network that Puts the Cuban Government in Check

SNet has turned its users into the best organized and connected group in Cuba outside the ruling party. (Karla Gómez)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 14 August 2019 — Its users cannot talk about politics or religion, but even so, the Street Network (SNet), which connects tens of thousands of Cubans through the Wi-Fi signal, has become a place of citizen freedom and convergence. This virtual web, where people play, chat and exchange content, is now in the eye of the official censors after new legislation that regulates the use of radio spectrum space on the Island took effect on 29 July.

Creativity has been an escape valve in Cuba for decades of material deficiencies and excessive control. As recipes are invented in kitchens to make the few ingredients sold in the markets less boring, many young people use offline tools that replace part of the experiences they might have on the web to alleviate internet connectivity problems.

SNet was born more than a decade ago, precisely, as a space for videogames, forums, social media substitutes and the transfer of files among those who did not have the ability to frequently access the world wide web. With devices bought mostly on the black market and others manufactured by the users themselves, customers began to connect, the first nodes emerged and even administrators appeared to manage a phenomenon that intertwined Havana with invisible threads.

During all this time they existed in a legal vacuum, somewhat tolerated by an officialdom that preferred to have those thousands of young people more focused on learning the latest videogames than on exercising some civic posture. But even so, SNet never pleased the Plaza of the Revolution, especially because it allowed people to connect and create communities beyond ideology and politics. For a government obsessed with knowing every detail in the lives of its citizens, that was a danger.

In their favor they have the largest reasonably organized in. Against them, a system that deeply fears its citizens will unite without being given the order to do so.

 The new legislation for wireless networks gives SNet legality but has put it on the verge of death. The regulations include rigid technical requirements that, if met, would reduce the range, speed and number of users that can connect. It is a regulation that seeks to cut the influence of this network underpinned by NanoStations and Mikrotiks, some of the devices that compose it. The official decision is a way to kill it without prohibiting it, to diminish its importance by limiting its technology.

The users’ response was not long in coming. Last Saturday dozens of people gathered in front of the Ministry of Communications to demand a special license that allows SNet to continue operating. Several of the protesters proposed that the authorities use the network infrastructure to enhance the computerization of Cuban society and that the state telecommunications monopoly, Etecsa, make agreements with administrators that allow access to the Internet through its nodes and antennas

The official response has not been positive and SNet users are preparing for new actions. In their favor they have the largest reasonably organized and connected community that exists in Cuba beyond the official mass organizations. Against them, a system that deeply fears its citizens will unite without being given the order to do so.

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This text was originally published in the Deutsche Welle for Latin America.

 

August, the Cruelest Month

After long weeks under the intense heat of summer, the August days generate widespread irritation. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 11 August 2019 — The poet T.S. Eliot was wrong… or at least his most famous verse does not work in the case of Cuba. “April is the cruelest month,” he wrote almost a hundred years ago, but on this Island that adjective belongs to August, the most difficult time of the year. After long weeks under the intense heat of summer, the days of August generate widespread irritation, a tendency to scream and rage.

To that we must add that the tortuous official bureaucracy becomes even more difficult to circumvent because many state entities work at half strength, many employees in that sector are on vacation and the phones of the institutions can ring for hours without anyone answering. In this eighth month of the year, suffocation and lethargy, despair and anger, are sharpened. Phrases like “better leave it for September” or “you won’t be able to do anything until August passes” are repeated everywhere.

Lovers repel each other with their sweat, buses are rolling saunas and the few air-conditioned offices become a fiefdom that employees defend tooth and nail from “non-authorized persons,” that is, citizens, who try enter to access services and incidentally enjoy temperatures under 77F. Everyone who has a fan in a public place feels themselves lord and owner of the situation, turning it to cool just their face, their desk, their small plot of power.

Oh, T.S. Eliot, how wrong you were with April, how good it seems that you never spent an August in Havana…

Ricky Left to the Rhythm of Reggaeton

Protesters celebrate the resignation of Ricardo Rosselló. (14ymedio / Juan Jaramillo)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, San Juan, Puerto Rico, 27 July 2019 — “He had to go and he left.” With these words the taxi driver welcomes me. No name or details are necessary, because in the streets of Puerto Rico everyone knows who he’s talking about. While driving through San Juan, the driver tells me how “people tossed out” Governor Ricardo Rosselló after days of protests, in which outrage and reggaeton shook hands.

At a traffic light, the driver, in his 50s, hits the steering wheel with gnarled hands as if it were Ricky’s face. “He didn’t want to leave, but he had to step down,” he insists. Along with his two children, the driver spent every night of last week around La Fortaleza, the official residence of the Puerto Rican governor. “I carried a flag, but in black and white, without colors, because here we are still in mourning,” he says.

While he tells me the details of the nights of protest, we pass through several blocks where balcony after balcony and door after door display the flag with the blue triangle and red stripes one after another. A banner so similar to the Cuban flag that in my fantasies of the recently arrived, I imagine being in Havana the day after a change of government.

This confusion of realities haunts me as the car heads towards old San Juan. So when the driver says “people joined together and it didn’t matter if you were an artist or a mechanic, rich or poor, everyone was together,” I fantasize about some workers who drop their picks and shovels on the railroad line to shout in chorus with novelists and troubadours in front of Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution.

The image lasts in my head for a second before I return to Puerto Rico.

Hurricane Maria is an open wound that crosses the Island. “My brother lost everything and had to move from the town where he lived, spent a year and a half without electricity,” says the taxi driver. Interposing some words in English: babyexpensivedealerfood… a linguistic mix that I hear everywhere in this free state associated with the United States.

Evening falls, headlines around the world point to this place where in the plazas twerking people celebrate the first day without Ricky, the beginning of a new stage, filled with questions. In one of those places, where popular joy, alcohol and hip movements mix, is Alder, a musician who plays the piano and the clarinet. He also dances, but with some care.

“I had sciatica problems last year and I don’t want to be in a wheelchair again but I couldn’t miss this,” he tells me as he glugs down a bottle of a craft beer made by friends. “These are not gone, they remained after the crisis and the hurricane, they are still here,” he says, pointing to the label “one hundred percent Puerto Rican.” Every time he tries to twerk he puts a hand on his waist, “to not do it too hard,” he says.

Beside him, a family has come with two darling and barking mutts, collected from the shelters where they left them when they fled from the hurricane to their families in the United States, who took them in that fateful September 2017. The winds and rains took then more than 4,600 lives, according to a study by Harvard University.

“It was hard because we had to go back to our origins, learn to do things that we hadn’t done for years,” says Nata, a Puerto Rican who has come out to celebrate with her two rescued pets. “There were people here who didn’t know how to live without air conditioning, without their cell phones or without electricity and ‘Maria’ forced us to learn from scratch,” she recalls.

“After that, the telephones did not work so people were in the street. In the villages they had to improvise common pots to feed themselves and the citizenry had to organize themselves to deal with the disaster,” she says. “This all started with ‘Maria’. Without what happened to us two years ago people would not have ended up mobilizing as they have done now, they would not have ended up uniting.”

The tipping point was the recent leak of a chat of almost 900 pages in which Rosselló shared with his close collaborators, his “brothers”, as he called them, hundreds, thousands, of opinions, comments and public policy issues. Sexual jokes and misogynistic jokes also dot the extensive exchange in the Telegram app that ended up sinking his Government.

But the rejection was incubated long before. “This is a rich boy, he doesn’t know what’s going on down here,” says a very thin man on the outskirts of a club that has been closed for more than a year. “He is the son of former Governor Pedro Rosselló González, so he has always had a good life without difficulties,” he explains and heads to a place where, on a rickety sofa, several drug addicts have a peaceful space to inject.

The musicians have been protagonists of the social movement that brought down Rosselló. The voices of Bad Bunny, Residente and Ricky Martin act as a soundtrack to social dissatisfaction and, at the bus stops, young people with wireless speakers blast their rhymes. You can go from one side of the city to the other completing the songs with the snippets that emerge from cars, windows and the voices of Puerto Ricans themselves.

Several phrases call for independence, for taking advantage of the situation to “go beyond and end the colony,” as a young man demands outside a small house near La Puerta de Alto del Cabro bar, a traditional site that has managed to survive despite the onslaught of the big chains. But it is the rejection of Rosselló, the villain of the day, which everyone seems to share.

Alder waited all Wednesday afternoon for Ricky to leave. In the musical studio where he recorded some songs, they stuffed themselves with popcorn, drinks and patience to celebrate the governor’s departure. After seven o’clock in the evening their supplies had run out and “the bastard still did not resign,” he recalls. It was like watching the end of a movie that goes on and on without the credits appearing.

An hour later, they decided to go to the outskirts of La Fortaleza. “It may take time but tonight he’s going, no matter what,” said Adler. In the early morning, he ended up on the bench of a drunk and happy park as if he had been part of the “liberating command” that removed the governor from his post. There was no one on the street who did not feel part of that group as well. They did not need balaclavas or machine guns, they did it with shouts.

Exhaustion and so many impressions mix up everything in my head. I grew up hearing about the two wings, that it is only together that the islands can take flight. Dawn arrives, and on the other “half of the bird” just a few hours remain before Cuba’s official 26th of July event.

Here, Puerto Ricans exercise their civic force against power, and there, Cubans attend the liturgy of immobility, the worn out ceremony of “continuity,” the motto most repeated by Cuban president Miguel Díaz-Canel to prolong what has already lasted too long. Here they talk and unite, there we shut up and fear. On the same morning, San Juan is a party and Havana a tomb.

Harry drives an Uber for ten hours a day, his real estate business was ruined by the hurricane. Every person I meet has a before and after ‘Maria’. Just mentioning that name makes people emotional, exploding in an avalanche of anecdotes. “I should have left, because a brother of mine who lives in New York was going to help me get settled there, but I didn’t want to leave my parents alone,” he says.

One day after the governor’s resignation the graffiti on the streets continue to recall the long days of demands. (14ymedio)

Skeptical about Roselló’s departure, Harry is one of the few who has not gone to demonstrate or celebrate after the governor’s resignation. “It doesn’t matter, a corrupt one leaves and another arrives,” he says. “Whoever comes will also steal,” he says categorically as we head for Ocean Park in Santurce. A black cloth whips loudly back and forth on a flagpole. “Ricky resign,” it says in huge white letters.

The vehicle turns the corner, passes a Walgreens pharmacy, a McDonald’s and a KFC. Throughout the neighborhood, local businesses try to maintain themselves in the presence of large firms that “sell cheaper and cheaper,” Harry tells me. “Young people prefer to eat a hamburger over a fricasé,” he laments.

Harry has been very worried since Wednesday, when Rosselló announced that he was leaving. “I live from tourism and the people who come here to do business. If they see us as an unstable or unsafe country, they won’t come,” he calculates. He proposes a trip to and from the beach for a good price, but then immediately realizes that I come from an Island; “ah … true you also have enough sun over there,” he says.

I arrive at Río Piedras, where time seems to have stopped. The once populous boulevard is now a street with few businesses and abandoned buildings. A store displays its Made in China merchandise on the sidewalk. Walking, I come across a cart that sells honey, lemon and ginger. I need them because my throat is sore from the Havana rain and the Puerto Rican revelry. I take advantage of the shade and approach the merchant.

“This was full of life before,” he says. Several cats come out of the abandoned house behind me. One, black as night, rubs against my legs to get me to give him something to eat. I cross the street and buy a corn fritter from a woman who has her little post at the entrance to a cafeteria. A recorded voice constantly repeats the list of sales “today only.”

In Río Piedras, near the University of Puerto Rico, people got tired of waiting. A coffee seller evokes the 1996 gas explosion in the Humberto Vidal store that left 33 dead and an indelible mark in the memory of the community. “Afterwards everything went from bad to worse,” he tells me and gives me a cup with a strong and bitter liquid that makes my eyes cross. “We didn’t have to fire a shot and Ricky left,” he boasts.

If it weren’t for a few details of the accent and because the coffee has no hint of roasted peas, I would think I was conversing with any Cuban in a town in the interior of the country. He smooths his hair with hand, raises his index finger and predicts that “already Puerto Ricans are not the same as before, now we know we are strong, that we must respect ourselves.”

Across the street, a Colombian underwear store exhibits bras with lace. “So Cuban,” says the man. I make a move to leave because I suspect that he will repeat stereotypes about my island, the other wing, a wing with its own wounds. I sense that he will recite to me “the conquests of the Revolution,” but I am wrong. “You don’t have this,” he emphasizes with a hint of superiority. “At least we have started along the road.”

I turn to give the cat something to eat but it is gone. The building where it came from smells of abandonment, of that humidity that is encrusted in the walls when people stop inhabiting a place. A nearby graffiti demands that Ricky step down and in the corner a tattered flag beats against a balcony. I squint my eyes and my tiredness or the heat make me see blue stripes instead of red stripes next to a triangle, blood red.