Masks Are Not Gags

The journalist Mónica Baró, winner of an award from the Gabo Foundation, is one of the journalists who has suffered an interrogation and a fine.

14ymedio, Yoani Sánchez, Generation Y, 22 April 2020 — While the coronavirus rages in Latin America, another enemy – not as tiny – is also gaining ground. Authoritarianism takes advantage of the health emergency and the fear of citizens to cut freedoms, crush rights and impose tight control over daily life. In a few weeks we have regressed many years and the steps backward could accelerate in the coming days.

Along with the necessary calls for social confinement, restrictions on mobility and the closing of borders, some governments have gone further and have launched a campaign against the press and freedom of expression. Between one and another series of preventive measures they want to impose a bitter censorship and curtail of civic rights. Along with the quarantine and the masks, punishments and gags spread everywhere.

We have seen everything. From leaders and rulers who incite xenophobic hatreds and use the pandemic politically, to others who promote mass mobilizations despite the risk and minimize scientific recommendations. While many politicians insist they are combating dangerous hoaxes against health, they actually plunge the knife in an attempt to destroy their critics, who question their management and the media that challenges them.

In times of epidemic, independent reporters in Cuba receive more police citations than usual, and Internet users who report official errors are threatened with exemplary punishment. A shower of interrogations and fines has fallen on the press not controlled by the Communist Party and it is expected that these retaliations will increase as the number of cases positive Covid-19 also increase.

Along with interrogations by the political police, confiscations of work supplies and monetary penalties, the new wave of repression includes demonization campaigns against the private media, presenting these reporters as almost another type of coronavirus. Authorities seem especially interested in cutting off any narrative about the harsh reality of long lines, shortages, and economic uncertainty that have flared in recent days.

The official attacks are also characterized by amnesia. When, a few weeks ago social networks were filled with exhortations for classes to be canceled and borders closed to tourism, government spokespeople branded citizen proposals as manipulations coming from abroad. Days later, the Plaza of the Revolution imposed a package of measures very similar to the one it repudiated.

The delay of those weeks, in which official tourist campaigns continued promoting the Island as “a safe destination” and even hinted that the high temperatures of the Caribbean were an additional protection against contagion, was widely denounced in the independent media. The cost in lives of that delay is something we will never know with certainty.

Now, intolerance has escalated a step further, and a young journalist was summoned by police last week and given a hefty fine. Mónica Baró, winner of the Gabo Prize in the Text 2019 category, received threats for her posts on Facebook. According to the repressors, her crime is having disseminated “information contrary to the social interest, morality, good customs and integrity of people”, according to the draconian Decree Law 370 that regulates the distribution of content.

Sheltered through the coronavirus, other dangerous pathogens thrive, ones that – wearing a necktie or military epaulets – want to leave society without “information defenses.”

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

COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

Cuban News and False Normality

People in Cuba continue to crowd together without a sufficient distance between them. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 17 March 2020 — Every day I have to make an effort to watch the official Cuban official. My work as a journalist obliges me to tune in to those news programs because in a country marked by vertical control of the news, there are data and statements that are only published on those television or radio stations. Although I always muster a special patience to sit before the screen, I must confess that these days the drink is getting much more bitter.

NTV, in the evening primetime hours, is broadcasting some dangerous hoaxes about the coronavirus, turning the pandemic into an ideological battle, using the calamity to compete politically, and denying the mistakes of the “fellow comrades” while minimizing or falsifying the successes of democratic countries before the advance of Covid-19. Thus, it disseminates statements from officials more concerned with appearing normal than with protecting the population. Everything Venezuela’s Maduro and Nicaragua’s Ortega do in the face of the pandemic is an example to follow, while Germany’s Merkel or France’s Macron seem to be literally sinking their countries, according to this crude news script.

The newscast speaking of the interior of Cuba tells us that everything is “tranquility and discipline” and in its reports and headlines chauvinism reaches unbearable heights with a mix of recklessness, arrogance, absolute lack of humility and folly. The responsibility for the damage this disease causes in an unsuspecting Cuba – where the borders have not yet closed, classes are not canceled, work days are not suspended, offices are not closed, and there is no strong call for people to stay at home – will fall on the official news media and its public “information.”

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COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

Authoritarianism and Coronavirus, Two Evils That Come Together

Inside the hospitals it will be something else: an overexploited medical staff without union rights, dilapidated facilities and a chronic lack of medicines. (Radio Rebelde)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 12 March 2020 — Invisible and potentially mortal. This is the enemy that keeps the world in check. Cuba officially confirmed this Wednesday that three Italian tourists tested positive for coronavirus and it is expected that in the next few days the number of infections will increase and that the authorities will take measures of great social impact. An authoritarian system functions like a permanent barracks or as a field hospital, so it has some “advantages” in an epidemic compared to democracies.

The first “superiority” shown by these types of regimes in the face of any emergency is their ability to control information. That ability to dominate the data was deployed in China during the first weeks of the appearance of Sars-Coronavirus-2, during which the few who dared to reveal what was happening were practically branded as traitors. Such was the sad case of Dr. Li Wenliang, accused by the authorities of “spreading rumors” – which could mean a high prison term – and who ended up dying of the virus.

Among some, the fact that only this Wednesday positive cases have been confirmed on the Island and that it was clear that no Cuban volunteer working abroad has contracted the disease has raised alarms. Is the script to “put make up” on the problem – that is to try to hide it – also being applied here? A strategy that would yield – facing the world – that would be extremely dangerous if it failed to convey to the population the real magnitude of the problem.

If Cuban authorities use the same policy that has been followed for years with regards to the number of people infected or killed by dengue fever is put into practice, the true incidence of Covid-19 in Cuba will never be known.

Accustomed to behaving like generals towards their soldiers and not like public officials towards their citizens, Cuban leaders can implement absolutely invasive and coercive measures at the social level without the need to decree a state of emergency. They do not require special permits to remove potential infected persons from their homes by force, to lock up suspected cases in hospitals, or to cancel all mobility across the country at once. In this, they “beat” democratic models by a landslide.

With an extensive network of informants throughout the national territory, the Plaza of the Revolution only needs to include sneezing and fever among the acts that must be reported, so that this network of snitches is launched to hunt for possible infections. Now, those who report their neighbor for expressing an anti-government slogan or a criticism of the Communist Party will be rewarded, as will those who report that a neighbor “looks sick,” “coughs a little” or “has shut themselves up at home and does not want to open the door.”

Like all strict paternalism, in this situation there will be no shortage of intense propaganda. Those who succeed in overcoming the coronavirus will not do so because the treatment worked or the medical personnel tried hard, but because “the Revolution did not leave him defenseless.” For a few weeks the disease will take on the role of the eternal enemy of the North and each case will be presented as a patriotic and political battleground from which one must emerge unscathed in order, among other things, to demonstrate to ideological adversaries that Cubans live under the best of all possible models.

Official propaganda will also take the opportunity to present the Island’s Health system as infallible, accurate and highly developed. Something that will serve to please those outside our borders who continue to believe the myth of the high level of care of the Cuban hospital network and who will point to “the performance of little David” as an example to follow in their respective countries. Inside the hospitals it will be something else: an overexploited medical staff without union rights, dilapidated facilities and a chronic lack of medicines will star in the “coronavirus days.”

But, unlike in other places, the narrative of that other face will be prohibited and whoever tells it could be legally prosecuted for damaging the country. Freedom of expression and of the press will become as scarce as facemasks. Control over what patients, family and friends post on social media could also be tightened. A post on Facebook, an image posted on Twitter may become an act of treason in the coming days.

But where democracies surpass any authoritarianism when it comes to emergencies is in being able to count on citizen participation. As the most recent devastating earthquake that affected Mexico City demonstrated, when people gather together and work as a team, they can go where a State cannot. Some of this was verified in Havana after the tornado that affected several areas of the capital in January 2019: the first arrivals came carrying food and water and they were people without the responsibility, uniform or credential to do so.

If that support network is outlawed, as is often the case in an authoritarian regime that wants to control everything, including solidarity, confronting the coronavirus may not be as effective as it needs to be. Especially because if services and supplies are cut, help between neighbors and families will become vital. How will one watch over so many old people on this vulnerable and lonely Island? Can a government deal with all that?

It should be added that the excessive control of the State alone has made the Cuban economy an unproductive disaster. In the country, there are daily crowds to buy food and move from place to place, a risk factor in the spread pattern that the disease follows. To top it off, few families have the reserves to stay inside their homes for days and thus avoid contagion. The same authoritarian system that boasts of being ready to face the coronavirus has left citizens in the most fragile defenselessness. It is on this point where democracies can excel, without a doubt.

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COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

Are We Facing A New Black Spring In Cuba?

Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara will be tried for insult against the national symbols for trying to take away from the Government its monopoly on the Cuban the. (Facebook)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 11 March 2020 — Seventeen years ago, while the world was focused on watching the invasion of Iraq, the Cuban regime took advantage of the distraction to strike the repressive coup that came to be called the Black Spring. This March, as the international media dedicates its headlines to the coronavirus, the Plaza of the Revolution is tightening the screws of control. The most visible face of these new raids is the artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, who has been imprisoned since Sunday March 1st for two alleged crimes, one of insult against the national symbols and the other of property damage.

Otero Alcántara creates a type of irreverent and social art that annoys the officialdom. The protest for the elimination of the bust of a communist leader to inaugurate a luxurious hotel in its place, also recalls in one of its installations the cache of weapons that Havana tried to pass through the Panama Canal bound for North Korea. A resident of San Isidro, one of the poorest areas of the Cuban capital, this artist born in 1987 has become the stone in the shoe of the stagnant Cuban Government.

The discomfort caused by Otero Alcántara among the island’s nomenklatura has several causes. He comes from a poor family, is mixed race and was born within the Revolutionary process. The authorities find it disturbing that, after having received a ‘free education and healthcare,’ as the official propaganda wearily repeats, he chooses not to applaud but to question.

To make matters worse, with his art he disassembles and desacralizes power by speaking to them on familiar and personal terms. They also reject his universal gaze, his successful use of new technologies, which have helped him to disseminate his actions, and his social commitment that places him in the uncomfortable category of artivist.

However, what Castroism is particularly bothered by is the crosscutting nature of Otero Alcántara, who has successfully included in his works the LGBTI agenda, the defense of animals, urban music, alternative literature, dissident postulates, the relationship between Cuba and the United States, the pains of exile, the rescue — beyond ideology — of national symbols, and criticism of Fidel Castro’s personal excesses. Irony, sarcasm and questioning mark his work with a freshness and spontaneity that many of those other creators – the ‘official’ ones from the gallery and catalog – have given up, preferring not to inconvenience power but rather to dedicate themselves to selling their art without getting into trouble.

For using the Cuban flag in several of his installations and performances, Otero Alcántara will be tried in a context in which police citations against activists are increasing, are arbitrary arrests and the violation of independent journalists’ freedom of movement. Probably in its heated offices the Communist Party is planning to make this trial an exemplary action that will permeate the whole of society, spurred on by the shortages, the inefficiency of the system and the dysfunctionality of the institutions. In response to the lack of bread, fear.

As in March 2003, the Cuban regime hopes to take advantage of global distraction to deal a further blow to citizen liberties. The Black Spring returns, but it remains to be seen how we are going to react to it now.

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

COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

The Cage is Deteriorating

Right now, in this city and in this country, there are thousands of families who put their children to bed without knowing if there will be a tomorrow. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 4 February 2020 — I was born and spent part of my childhood in a tenement in Centro Habana. I remember those nights of going to bed and shaking out of my sheets the dust that fell from the deteriorated ceilings. I also remember the care I took when climbing the stairs because a piece of the wall threatened to break loose, the sticks used to prop up some areas, and the permanent small of dampness and sewage leaking from the pipes in poor condition.

The uncertainty generated by having lived in these circumstances remains for a lifetime. It is a tremor you feel while you sleep; one eye open that never closes because plaster from the wall can end up on your pillow and, also, a gratefulness when the day dawns and you are still breathing. Right now, in this city and in this country, there are thousands of families who put their children to bed without knowing if there will be a tomorrow, because a girder can give way, a ceiling can collapse or a beam can fall down.

To those who like to separate politics from everyday life, as if what happens in a “palace” does not affect every aspect of a society, we must remind you that many of these buildings would have had a very different fate if, decades ago, their inhabitants had been allowed to appeal to more than the official channels to solve the problems they faced every day.

But like a strict father, the Cuban state wanted to possess everything and secure everything. The result: half a century of buildings that were deteriorating and being destroyed without a contractor, a cooperative or a private company being allowed to stop the debacle or build new buildings. By the time they came to open a few cracks in that monopoly, it was already late and — to top it all — the small openings in the private sector are still weighed down by a lack of autonomy, excessive bureaucracy and an official omnipresence that does not yield.

All that, because the “great controlling father” that is the Plaza of the Revolution needed to make us believe that not only did it provide us our birdseed through the rationed market, and other distributions through political privileges and ideological meritocracy, but it also gave us the roof: a rough cage that is falling to pieces.

See also:
Condemned to Live Among the Ruins
Havana is Collapsing – A Photo Essay: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

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COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

The Cuban Government Updates Its Blacklist

The list of prohibited pages updated this week, also includes some  that have been censored for some time including the daily 14ymedio [Intro Text: For the naive, for the uninformed, for those new to social networks, for those who still believe that the media war against Cuba is a digital story, for those who believe everything they read on Facebook, listed here are the most reactionary sites. It is not surprising that among those are those you have “liked” and “followed,” rectifying this is wise. This is a message from Radio Progress, the station of #FamiliaCubana. If you know of others, send a message.]

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 20 January 2020 – All models that are authoritarian and closed to change have had their lists of prohibited readings, censored authors and banned texts. From the inquisition, through Nazism, to the strict Soviet censorship, these models of citizen control have needed to constrain the limits of human knowledge and, thereby, of the written word. In its six decades Castroism has not lacked its own blacklist, its catalog of the stigmatized and its punishments of whomever approaches certain titles banished from the pantheon of the trustworthy.

This has happened with literature, with authors such as Guillermo Cabrera Infante and Reinaldo Arenas; with musicians like Celia Cruz and Paquito de Rivera… and, of course, with independent media. This week, the list of digital sites that annoy the Cuban government has expanded again and now includes El ToqueBarrio PeriodismoLa Joven Cuba and even OnCuba. New additions to the glossary of the forbidden. Some radio stations and blogs are accompanied with a warning: “For the naive, for the uninformed, for those who still believe that the media war against Cuba is a digital story.”

It is an honor to be on that list of forbidden, but also the authorities display an infinite clumsiness by spreading a catalog of the media that should not be read. Nothing is as attractive as the forbidden.

Because to all authoritarians citizens are like naive children who must be told what to do, what to read, what to eat, how to think. A paternalistic and controlling model like Cuba’s cannot accept that individuals choose how they are informed. Accepting that reality would be like recognizing that the system failed, that the ‘New Man’ created in the laboratories of social alchemy, indoctrinated since childhood and forced to behave as a soldier or as a monk, now wants to decide what he reads, what he hears and what he sees .

The updated list of sites banned this week, also includes the list of what has been censored for some time, among them the daily 14ymedio that we produce as a group of colleagues from within Cuba. It is an honor to be on that list of forbidden, but also the authorities display an infinite clumsiness by spreading a catalog of the media that should not be read. Nothing is as attractive as the forbidden.

Now, readers have a detailed list of where they should look, by what channels they should be informed, what web addresses they should visit and what content they should be sure not to miss. Censorship is terrible and dangerous but also awkward. Forbidding ends up consecrating, harassing ends legitimizing, burning books at the stake or blocking digital pages ends up exalting them and making them more visible and visited. It has happened on many occasions throughout history and it is also happening with Castroism.

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COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

The Arrogance of Cuba’s Political Police

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 17 January 2020 — In the last decade there have been several recordings of police interrogations that Cuban activists have managed to make and bring to light. In many of them, State Security officers are heard intimidating, threatening and behaving themselves like the owners and lords of the whole country, above the law, above human life and above citizens’ rights. But the audio achieved by the photographer Javier Caso during an “interview” with the political police is invaluable as a testimony and as an X-ray of an entire era.

The Cuban, who lives in the United States and is the brother of the renowned actress Ana de Armas, recently visited the island and repeatedly contacted actress Lynn Cruz and film director Miguel Coyula. It was enough for him to meet with his friends of a lifetime to receive a summons from the Department of Immigration and Foreigners. Once there, a script was developed that was well known to dissidents, opponents and any independent journalist who has ever been summoned to this type of police trap.

The audio recorded by Caso, who by the mere fact of recording the voices on a device shows great courage, manages to convey the absurdity of the situation, the arrogance of the interrogators and that atmosphere where the individual is at the mercy of a surveillance device and control capable of ignoring the Constitution, the Criminal Code and whatever legal resolution there is on this Island. The young photographer met two men who personify the true power that controls Cuba, above deputies, ministers and presidents.

It is a grotesque and cruel face that springs from the impunity of a repressive institution that has been running freely for decades

The officials are ridiculous, they mouth barbarities such as that the Cuban police are the fifth best in the world or dare to decide who can be called an artist or not, although they themselves may not know one iota about creative expressions or contemporary art.

The great triumph of Caso is to take, with apparent naivety but with much intelligence, the conversation to a point where the seguros have to take off their masks and show the true face hidden under bureaucratic formalities and an apparent respect for order. It is a grotesque and cruel face that is born from the impunity of a repressive institution that has been running freely for decades and whose arrogance ends up opening it to ridicule in this conversation.

Since new technologies broke into the Island, there have been many testimonies (photos, audios, videos) that attest to the lack of a framework of rights in which we Cubans live, but this recording has a special merit. In addition to the quality with which one listens and the equanimity of the person being questioned to get the officials to expose themselves, this testimony causes an outrage that is not easily placated. The more we hear of it, the greater is a rage that grows and becomes a decision and a conviction: we cannot allow the political police to continue ruling Cuba.

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COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

The Island of Impossible Forecasts

The only certainty is that millions of Cubans are still waiting for a group of elders to decide to release control. (Pedro S.)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 31 December 2019 — We Cubans have learned to live surrounded by uncertainty, without the security of knowing where the country is going or what the immediate future holds for us. The inability to make forecasts becomes more evident on dates like this, when December is over and questions about the coming year fill family gatherings and street conversations. What will 2020 be like? Will the economic crisis get worse or will the long-awaited stability come? Will there be any hint of political openness?

Given these questions, we can count on very few certainties to make forecasts. For months the rumors of an imminent monetary unification have caused the convertible peso to lose steam and raised the prices of the dollar in the informal market. In the absence of a public schedule on when the dual monetary system will end on the Island, people are easily prey to speculation and fear. Leveraging in foreign currencies has been the solution chosen by those who fear losing part of their capital should the process occurs overnight and entail a significant devaluation of national money.

Alongside the monetary issue, another constant source of concern is the stagnation of the economy and the slowdown that the ruling party has applied to the reforms that Raúl Castro began to implement after coming to power in 2008. It seems that the Plaza of the Revolution has opted to maintain state control over a good part of the country’s industries, production centers and services and put firm reins on private entrepreneurs to prevent the sector from strengthening and being able to press for changes of political nature.

Relations with the United States, in decline throughout 2019, are also an unknown that many try to clear up, in a country that depends largely on remittances that arrive from our northern neighbor. If the sanctions of the US Administration continue to increase, the material deterioration will also increase, the official discourse will become more and more “of the barricades” every day and it is likely that the number of Cubans seeking an exit through emigration will also rise. There is very little chance that the path of diplomatic thaw that both countries traveled beginning in 2014 will be resumed in the short term.

One of the few certainties in the midst of so many doubts is that which signals that we are witnessing the decline of the so-called historical generation, a handful of octogenarians that continue to manipulate the threads of the nation’s power. Biology is marking the end of life of some of those faces that still appear in the official photos along with the younger officials who have risen in recent years. The death of one of them could open the door to a different scenario and allow deeper transformations. As in other years, the only certainty is that millions of Cubans are still waiting for a group of elders to decide to let go of control or for implacable time to do its job.

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This text was originally published by the Latin American page of Deustche Welle.

COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

The Master Lesson of ‘The Two Popes’

The film “The Two Popes” addresses the moment of Benedict XVI’s resignation and the surprising rise of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, to the Throne of St. Peter. (Screen Capture)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 27 December 2019 — Through the “Weekly Packet” of audiovisuals that circulates so widely in Cuba, this week an excellent copy of Netflix’s film The Two Popes has reached viewers on the Island. The film addresses, as fiction, the moment of the resignation of Benedict XVI and the surprising rise of an Argentine cardinal, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, to the Throne of Saint Peter.

But beyond the political and ecclesiastical interest that the film is generating, with the starring roles masterfully interpreted by Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, the most interesting element — in my opinion — is the relationship established between two human beings with different world views and diametrically opposed approaches to many subjects. As the minutes of a finely woven script pass, each character ends up influencing the vision of the other while showing his own limits and faults.

Although many will believe that this film is about dogma, faith and the current situation of the Catholic Church, in reality I think it is a song to understanding, to seeking the common point shared by all people, beyond their religion, their ideology or their life experiences. This fictional story is a temple to words and the exchange of opinions as the most effective way to understand the other.

I hope that The Two Popes will circulate widely in Cuba and that it even reaches the screens of those who, in some protected office and surrounded by the paraphernalia of power, have severed all possibility of expression, conversation and free debate in our society. They are the ones who most need to watch this movie.

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COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

Nostalgia, the Inseparable Ingredient of a Cuban Christmas

Nostalgia for those who are missing, nostalgia for what we don’t have on the table, nostalgia for what they took from us. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 25 December 2019 — If I had to select one ingredient inseparable from a Cuban Christmas, it would be nostalgia. Nostalgia for those who have emigrated and are no longer at the family table, nostalgia for a distant and lost time that the elderly remember during this time of year, nostalgia even for those born in a Cuba where extreme atheism reigned and where we lost these celebrations for long years, and now we even have nostalgia for what they took from us as children.

2019 has been a difficult year for Cubans. The economy has been stagnant for a long time and in September it sank even further with an energy crisis that the government categorized as “temporary” but that continues to affect everyday issues such as transportation, the availability and supply of food, and agricultural production. Hence, this Christmas many have not been able to travel to another province to celebrate with their relatives as they traditionally do every Christmas Eve.

Food prices have also risen despite the official attempt to impose price caps or maximum prices on some products. So the traditional dinner with roast pork, rice, yucca with mojo and salad will be inaccessible for the wallets of many families this December, and they will have to settle for more modest dishes. Meanwhile, another sizable share of the Cuban population will be able to dine in a special way on Christmas Eve and also on December 31, thanks to an emigrated relative who has paid the bill for the celebrations.

Those who have access to the convertible currency, receive remittances, have a private business or frequently travel abroad may complete their Christmas celebrations with the traditional Christmas nougat, a bottle of wine and even some grapes, traditional for New Year’s Eve. In the homes of the high officials and the leaders of the Communist Party there are most likely banquets, replete with rum and beer, the uncorking of some champagne and Vivas! for over 60 years in power.

But also, in many Cuban homes, nothing special will happen on the night of December 24 because after decades of interrupted Christmas celebrations, families will concentrate their celebrations on the night of December 31, Saint Sylvester Day. When a tradition is curtailed, interrupted, severed, it takes a long time to restore it and reincorporate it into the life of a people. Unfortunately, in the case of Christmas, it is only since December 1997 (a few days before the historic visit of Pope John Paul II to this Island) that Cubans were able to recover December 25 as a holiday. Only 22 years have passed and that is not enough time for a tradition to take root again.

However, some end-of-year rituals are maintained, such as throwing water from balconies, windows, doors and terraces at midnight on December 31 as a way to clean up all the bad things of the year that is ending and start the new year that is beginning cleaned of problems. For this 2020 we will need a lot of water, because the economic forecast for the country is not flattering and the stubbornness of those who govern us continues to aim to maintain state control over many productive sectors, despite the demonstrated inefficiency of that model. Political repression will continue because a Party that has been imposed by force and that has tried to quench the plurality of trends and voices that exist on this Island can keep its hold on power only in this way.

Other Cubans, on December 31, will burn a doll made of old clothes and straw as a symbol of the destruction of the negative and the old before the new January begins. But in recent years another custom has taken hold: leaving the house with a suitcase and walking around the block or making a tour of the street where we live, the neighborhood we inhabit. A ritual that seeks to attract a trip, a visa, an invitation to leave the country and probably to not return. On an island on the run we see more and more people carrying their luggage on the night of the last day of the year.

Also added to this December is the countdown to a monetary unification – the elimination of Cuba’s system of two official currencies – along with salary reform and the end of some subsidies that will undoubtedly be a blow to the poorest families with the least resources. Thus, “uncertainty” is the word that defines the year that is about to begin and that feeling of having too many doubts and very few answers will weigh heavily on family tables this Christmas. But, I repeat, nostalgia will be the main ingredient of the celebrations, the unwanted guest, the protagonist of these celebrations.

Nostalgia for those who are missing, nostalgia for what we don’t have on the table, nostalgia for what they took from us. Nostalgia for what we could be.

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COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.