And The Day Arrived…

There is no shortage of those who see the arrival of the Internet as a way of diverting attention from the serious problems that Cuba is going through. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 7 December 2018 – There is always room for pessimism, because it worms its way in from all sides. After six decades of unmet promises, many Cubans were skeptical about the coming of web navigation on mobile phones and, in part, they are right after so many years of delay at the hands of the Telecommunications Company of Cuba (Etecsa). It is normal that the enthusiasm has “cooled.”

One more “bucket of cold water” on the joy is the high prices the State telecommunications monopoly has imposed on its data packages which, as of Thursday, have been marketed to the cellular network’s customers. Paying between 25% and 100% of the average monthly salary for plans that cover between 600 megabytes and 4 gigabytes is too much.

On the other hand, there is no shortage of those who see the arrival of the Internet as a way of diverting attention from the serious problems that the country is currently facing, with a bankrupt economy, a private sector that is troubled by the regulatory measures that are going into effect on 7 December, and authorities unable to lay out a plan for the future, as if it’s not constrained by the rigid articles of a Constitution that have been cooked up by those “up there.”

However, even though all the pessimists and skeptics have good reason to be cautious about this new form of connectivity, it would be much more powerful and effective to assess the potential that is opening up before us as citizens. This is not a crumb that has been thrown at us, but the victory of a demand long yearned-for, one earned by our “sweat.”

More than a decade ago, when I opened my blog Generation Y, those of us who used the few cybercafes on the island, opened the first digital blogs and dared to create accounts on Twitter, were immediately labeled as “cybermercenaries.” Those were the days when the web was presented in the official press as a tool created by the CIA and Cuba’s outdated military called for “taming the wild colt of the Internet.”

On the other hand, from the opposition, we bloggers were seen as “kids” who had it easy because we wrote from our keyboards and were going to change the Island tweet by tweet, duped by the idea that with a phone in our hands we could stop the blows of the repressors or put the Plaza of the Revolution in check. Nor was there any lack of those who labeled us “agents of State Security” simply because they “let” us write on the web.

Time has passed and we have won. Now, without any self-criticism, most of the ministers have a Twitter account, president Miguel Diaz-Canel fills his timeline on the network of the little blue bird with slogans, and Etecsa, the technological arm of the repression, has had to open up mobile navigation services after several resounding failures and a flood of complaints from its customers.

All the dissidents I know have a cell phone, YouTube accounts have become an effective way to report human rights violations, and numerous independent media have emerged in the country with a journalistic quality and rigor that force the official press to report things ranging from an armed assault in a school to the ravages of dengue fever. The skeptics of yesteryear ended up joining the new technologies.

Now, although no doubt a good part of the money the inefficient Etecsa will raise with the navigation service will be used to buy uniforms for the police and to feed the officials who plan the surveillance of the opposition and activists, we will also win. There is no doubt. Because the step they have taken this December will have a much greater cost to them than all the dollars they might pocket.

In every corner of Cuba they are exposed, in every town there is someone with a phone connected to internet, fingers ready to report an injustice, denounce a corrupt official, through the reality that differs so much from that reported in the official media. People who will have access to another type of information, far beyond the boring pages of the official newspaper Granma.

I can imagine that, in a short time, some part of communications between Cubans will be traveling encrypted by the internet, chat forums will offer those rooms of debate that we lack in the physical world, and State Security will be forced to develop new techniques of surveillance, new methods to keep track of millions of Cubans in cyberspace.

The private economy will also benefit. Businesses, online purchases, home deliveries will be enhanced with this new service and even if they do not manage to rescue the country from the deep crisis it is in, it will probably ease the lives of thousands of families. Knowledge, distance-learning, and participation in forums will also come to our lives on a daily basis, little by little.

The process will be long, but we have started down a path and it depends on us if we want to see it as a trap, or if we start to explore it with the aim of taking advantage of it so that it brings us closer to freedom.

Will Today Be The Day?

To connect by mobile phone in Cuba you have to go to a wifi point. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 4 December 2018 — Will today be the great day when the Telecommunications Company of Cuba (Etecsa) finally tells us – with precision, transparency and honesty – the date on which we Cubans will be able to enjoy internet service on our phones?

The state monopoly, one of the most inefficient companies on the planet, promised a few months ago that we would be able to surf from our cell phones before the end of this year. After three tests that were a resounding failure, Etecsa has not mentioned the matter again and now only 27 days remain until the end of the month. We do not accept excuses, we want to be respected as customers.

If Etecsa CAN’T (as it seems), the authorities should let other foreign companies with more experience and infrastructure come in to offer stable, modern and cheap connectivity. Professionals across the country are crying out for this, because every day they spend not as internet users their knowledge is outdated and their ability to innovate and create ceases to be competitive.

Entrepreneurs would also be able to scale to a new level if they could offer their products and services through the web (can you imagine Über arriving in Cuba?), and teenagers, students, housewives, and even retired people who stand in line for the newspaper, would have greater opportunities, new channels of information, more chances of interacting with their emigrated relatives and with the world.

In other words, the country would benefit. But the thing is, there are some who see nothing good coming from our being connected. They are those who have spent years been trying to “tame the wild colt of the internet,” the mediocre people who have gained prominence with their subsidized (and privileged) access to the web where they go to repeat their slogans. The lifelong censors who tremble just thinking about people having their hands on a device directly connected to the great world wide web, able to report an abuse in a matter of seconds, to record political violence, the chronic shortages, the popular discontent, to denounce a corrupt official… to question the system.

They are those who even fear people enjoying “the frivolity” of the web… because every song we listen to on iTunes, every dating site we visit, every product we “covet” on Amazon, will be time spent beyond the influence of official propaganda, far from the carefully packaged primetime newscast. It will be time in which we may seem apathetic, but at least we won’t be “fanatics.”

Anyway, Etecsa, how long until mobile internet arrives?

First Ladies: An Untapped Potential In Latin America

After more than five decades in which the power had hair on its chest and only used skirts as a secondary support, a woman accompanies the president on his international engagements. It is a serious problem that she does not say anything.

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 27 November 2018 — In times when there is so much talk of women’s demands, of campaigns with #MeToo-style labels, and of questioning the treatment of women in the media, it is worth reflecting on the figure of the First Lady in so many governments in Latin America.

In contrast to some European nations, and of specific moments in the administrations in the United States, in this part of the world that ranges from the Rio Grande to Patagonia, the person accompanying the president has barely used her influence and media exposure to bring messages of renewal to a female audience. She has been, rather, a “beautiful adornment” that follows the president to his public speeches, to the signing of agreements or on international tours, but she has been far from carrying herself as someone with a voice of her own who addresses the nation.

What if she used her position to influence something beyond clothes or hairstyles? The Latin American first ladies should break the mold of a beautiful face that assents to everything her husband does and throw themselves into promoting new roles, demanding spaces and launching those life stories that help the women of this region shake off disrespect and violence.

There are very gray cases, such as that of the recently premiered first lady of Cuban Lis Cuesta, the first female name that is officially linked to a president in more than half a century. After more than five decades in which power had hair on his chest and only used skirts as a secondary support, we see a woman who takes the president’s hand and accompanies him on his international engagements. It is a serious problem that she does not say anything, but we do not know if it is because of her own desire for “invisibility” or because she is prevented from doing so.

It matters little whether she shares spaces with the highest Chinese authorities or walks through the streets of London, the big problem is that we Cubans do not know the tone of her voice or what she thinks about the most critical issues of the nation.

In other Latin American countries the problem would be one of media over-exposure or the banal use of the figure of the first lady by the gossip media or fashion press to discuss the inches of her hemline or the quality of her makeup. However, in countries like this island where I live, the voice of the ruler’s wife seems to be suppressed as her very existence is shown as a “weak” diversion of the ideology in power, a “mannered” gesture of authority.

It is already time for this person who accompanies the highest office in the country to stop being pure decoration. She should not be presented like a flowery curtain that does not speak, like a beautiful vase and – much less – like an artificial flower that should always look fresh and perfumed, even in the worst moments.

A first lady must be the mirror for many Latin American women to see their potential reflected, a powerful call to realize projects and a reflection of what will come in the future. Will the ladies of the Palace be willing to subvert their wardrobes for real influence, to exchange heels for social endeavors? We all hope so.

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Note: This column was originally published in the Latin American edition of the Deutsche Welle chain.

Cuba-Brazil: The Battle of the White Coats

Cuban doctors who stay in Brazil will be forbidden entry to the island for eight years. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 19 November 2018 – We saw the conflict coming. From the moment Jair Bolsonero won the elections in Brazil, Cuba’s official discourse increased in rhetoric against him and prepared public opinion for the rupture that was imminent.

The straw that broke the camel’s back for the Plaza of the Revolution was the statements by the president-elect in which he warned that he would change the conditions of the agreement under which more than 8,300 physicians from Cuba work in Brazil’s Mais Medicos (More Doctors) program.

Last Wednesday, tensions escalated to their highest point when the Cuban Minister of Public Health announced that he was cancelling the contract and removing his professionals from the South American country. The official notice, read out on all of the island’s the news programs, repeated that Bolsonaro’s threats would not be tolerated but deftly ignored some of his words. Particularly those where the rightist leader insisted that the Cuban doctors should receive their full salaries and be able to bring their families to stay with them while they were in the program.

The Cuban government has made medical missions a lucrative business. With professionals deployed in more than 60 countries, the money raised by this practice is Cuba’s largest source of foreign currency, estimated to exceed $11 billion annually.

In the case of Brazil, Havana pockets 75% of the 3,300 dollar salary Brazil pays for each doctor, while the health professionals only receive a quarter of the total. On the Island, in a bank account which they do not have access to, their “Cuban” monthly salary of about 60 dollars accumulates, which they can only collect if they return to the island.

Those who leave the Mais Medicos program under their own will are considered deserters and are banned from entering Cuba for eight years. During the time the Workers’ Party (PT) was at the head of the Brazilian government, the doctors who escaped from their contracts were pursued by the Brazilian police and could be returned to the Island if they were arrested. None were allowed to bring their family members to be with them during their missions, and they were often housed in overcrowded hostels shared with other doctors, nurses and hospital technicians.

Despite so many difficulties and the low earnings, the missions were very much desired by the doctors because they were able to buy goods that are not available in Cuban markets, and to make contacts that would later allow them to return to Brazil privately, with a contract to work in some clinic.

Beyond its ability to provide healthcare for many Brazilians in the poorest areas of the country, the Mais Medicos program hid a political operation to build support for the leftist Workers’ Party and guarantee it the votes of the lower classes. It was clear that Cuba’s interest in this outcome was not going to continue with Bolsonaro in charge, thus it was only a matter of time before Castroism removed its healthcare professionals from Brazil. It only remains now to ask how many of them will actually return to the island.

The president-elect of Brazil has announced that he will grant political asylum to all Cuban doctors who request it and it is expected that a considerable number will benefit from this offer. Those who do so will lose the right to return to their homeland for many long years, they will be called traitors and, most likely, their families on the island will be under pressure. The battle of the white coats has barely begun.

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Note: This column was originally published in the Latin American edition of the Deutsche Welle chain.

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.

Private Versus State, Novelties and Fossils

The restaurant in the mansion at 3rd and 8th in Havana’s Miramar district is very close to a place privately run by self-employed workers. “House Rules” [Briefly] 1. No one under 18 at night. 2. Appropriate dress. 3. Do not bring your own food and drink, it will be confiscated. 4. No pets. 5. No photos without permission. 6. Behave yourself or you will be permanently barred. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation 7, Havana, 8 November 2018 – The distance between them is a hundred yards and an abyss. The restaurant in the mansion at 3rd and 8th in Havana’s Miramar district is very close to a place privately run by self-employed workers. Both serve food, both are located in beautiful buildings with columns and arches, but the differences are so profound they might be two different universes. The first is under state management and the second is private, a word that the authorities avoid mentioning.

In the Cuba where I was born and grew up everything was state-owned. The snack bars, the pizzerias, the newspaper kiosks and the funeral homes. Most of those places are still administered by the government sphere; they are socialist businesses that have not demonstrated a very efficient management. But in the field of gastronomy there has been a significant and positive change in recent years. In this field, where the Ministry of Internal Commerce once ruled, it is now the self-employed who are leading the sector.

On this Island the fossilized remains of the Soviet era coexist with businesses that could be competitive in New York, Berlin or Madrid. Back-to-back are state services unable to adapt to the new demands of their customers, and private ones trying to stay afloat despite the high taxes, the absence of wholesale markets, and the ill-will professed by Communist Party bureaucrats.

The collapse of the state company is evident, with all its harshness, in the mansion at 3rd and 8th  Streets in Miramar, where a woman jingles some coins outside the bathroom: a gesture to demand tips from the customers who use the stinking cubicle, lacking toilet paper and water. Half the dishes listed on the menu are unavailable, an absence the waitress justifies by the lack of chicken and pizzas. There are no napkins on the tables and in the kitchen five employees vegetate while talking loudly.

The stately patio, with its palms and ferns, is occupied by a metal container that serves as a storeroom and the plants in their stone beds show symptoms of neglect. A piece of paper stuck on a door announces that in the room on an upper floor where videos are shown there are currently no films. The tablecloths are splashed here and there with spilled food and on the TV set over the tables a horror movie is showing images of disemboweled people while the customers sink their teeth into hamburgers.

Just when the customers think it can’t get any worse, the administrators organize a “lightening meeting” with the cooks and servers which paralyzes service and causes a crowd to pile up at the bar. Some, annoyed by the long wait, the missing menu items and the bland dishes, decide to cross the sidewalk and patronize the paladar (private restaurant) offering Spanish tapas. The walk between yesterday’s Cuba and tomorrow’s is a journey between a failed model and another one, possible and desired.

“Everything on the menu is available,” the waiter states proudly to the incredulous customers who have escaped the state premises. No one is able to explain very well how the private restaurant manages to maintain a supply of pork, beef and fish in a country where, in the last year, shortages have worsened, but everyone knows that some of the ingredients travel in the suitcases of innumerable passengers and others come from the black market. “Do you want your paella with seafood, rabbit or vegetables?” asks the waiter. Two tourists take pictures in front of a poster of bulls and another dares to ask for a vegan dish that arrives in a few minutes: varied and without traces of animal protein.

I fear that the mansion at 3rd and 8th may have many years ahead of it, offering bad cooking, the worse service, and the poor flavors that flow from its cauldrons. Meanwhile, the nearby paladar does not know if it will survive, because it has exposed the mammoth futility of a whole system. For this it may pay dearly.

Bolsonaro and the Shadow of Lula

In the second round this Sunday, Haddad (right) could pay for the corruption linked to Lula, who has been his mentor, to the benefit of the extremist Bolsonaro (left).

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 26 October 2018 — If everything goes as the polls predict, on October 28 the far right Jair Bolsonaro could win in the second round of the Brazilian presidential elections.

This possible victory would be underpinned not only by the weariness of a large part of the population in the face of corruption and the inefficiency of the political class, but also by the dead weight that his closeness with Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has represented for the candidate Fernando Haddad.

While Bolsonaro fulminates against everyone, crusades against whomever and, like a chameleon, has toned down his speech to some degree in recent weeks, Fernando Haddad is linked to a fidelity with Lula which, right now, is his principal burden. From the presidential candidate of the Workers’ Party (PT), the shadow of the mistakes made by the former president, now in prison, and also by his successor Dilma Rousseff, colors everything.

Bolsonaro, with his nostalgia for the military dictatorship, has undertaken a slight turn towards the center to appease fears and win a greater number of voters among those areas of Brazilian society who resisted, until recently, to mark his name on their ballots. Their ranks grow every day, however, as people opposed to the PT are willing to punish at the polls the management of a group that began with promises to make a new kind of politics and ended up muddied in the miasma of corruption, patronage, influence peddling and ideological bullying.

Haddad, trapped by his proximity to his mentor, is unable to launch criticisms against the previous administrations of the PT, to promise a radical change with respect to his predecessors or to renege on the figure who has elevated him to these presidential elections. The pulling of strings that control Haddad from the Curitiba prison are too evident and the suspicion that once he rises to the Planalto Palace he could decree an amnesty that would free Lula dissuades many from supporting him.

In Brazil, not only is a new president being elected. If the citizens give the nod to Bolsonaro they would also inflict a devastating blow on the most authoritarian left which, two decades ago, began its ascent to the highest positions in numerous nations in Latin America. That era in which Lula posed in a family photo with Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, Daniel Ortega, Raul Castro, Rafael Correa and many others, is about to receive the coup de grace at the ballot boxes of Brazil.

The problem is what will come next. When the punishment vote passes to spite the PT, it will be defeated. Can Bolsonaro moderate his behavior and govern for all Brazilians? Will he banish from his discourse the exclusions and dogmatism he has promoted to prevent society from becoming further polarized? Will he be able to give the country back its once thriving economy and lower unemployment? Will his mandate contribute to new Latin American alliances more focused on the welfare of the people than on the ideologies?

The answer to all those questions is a big question. Analysts have not ceased to sound the alarm about what can happen with a man so unpredictable and extremist in the presidency. Whatever happens, much of the responsibility falls on Lula’s shoulders.

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

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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.

Cuban Temper Tantrum Unleashed at the United Nations

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 17 October 2018 – At first one can even be sympathetic: an elementary school classmate who flaps her arms while screaming. Later, comes the rudeness as the saleswoman’s mouth clenches before she spits out, “Girl, why did you even take that off the shelf if we haven’t marked the price yet?” Or the soldiers practicing on Independence Avenue while chanting a motto that ends in the phrase, “y nos roncan los cojones.”

Thus, over several generations, we Cubans have grown up with the idea that screaming, saying bad words, insulting others, calling them mocking nicknames and not letting others speak makes us look brave, superior or “macho.” This has undoubtedly contributed to what can be called “revolutionary trash talk,” that effrontery in the use of language and manners to make us seem more proletarian, more humble.

Within that code of socialist morality and Cuban uncouthness it is accepted and admired to use the vocal chords at full volume to prevail in a discussion. If, in addition, the person who is most vociferous intersperses swear words referring to the masculine sexual organs, he will be applauded as the winner of the debate and homage will be paid to him for being a true Cuban.

However, relating vulgarity with humility is one of the great errors that this system has instilled in us. My grandmother lived all her life in a tenement in Cayo Hueso and I don’t remember ever hearing a single bad word from her. I know thousands of examples of people who eat only once a day and yet continue to repeat to their children those maxims of “poor but honest,” “poor but clean,” “poor but decent.”

On several occasions I have had to witness the sad spectacle of acts of repudiation against me, with this practice of shouting so that I cannot express myself, accompanied with offensive gestures and rudeness. Experiencing it as an individual is something that everyone handles in their own way (I confess I’ve often laughed at them), but it is something else to see the name of the country where you live associated with such boorish manners.

I can’t stop feeling embarrassed for the Cuban delegation and the lamentable spectacle they displayed at the United Nations. I know that they do not represent all Cubans, not even the majority, but I can’t help thinking that for those present in that room and for all those who watched on TV or online the screaming, the banging on the tables and the mouths distorted by the anger of those shock troops must represent to them “Cuba.”

I want to apologize on their behalf, even if I do not have an ounce of responsibility for what happened and I disapprove of those practices and the government that drives them. However, I do have to apologize because we have allowed this Island to remain in the hands of people who do not have the moral stature or the decency to represent us.

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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.