Cubans Have Lost Their Smiles

That laughter on the lips or the cackles set off by anything at all have disappeared from Cuban streets. (14ymedio)
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14ymedio, Yoani Sánchez, Havana, 21 October 2022 — We are a dozen people waiting in line. The woman in front of me has her lips pursed as if she is avoiding saying anything. The young man in flip-flops and jeans turns his head from side to side from time to time, while next to him a teenager does not take her eyes off her phone and frowns. The man at the end of the line has released some insults for the delay and even the store’s guard can’t stop complaining. No one smiles, no face even hints at a gesture of joy or complacency.

For years I had to explain to my foreign students who came to learn Spanish on the island that the laughter of Cubans should not be interpreted as synonymous with happiness. “Even at funerals, and despite the sadness of the death of someone close, people will make their jokes and can burst out laughing,” I described. But the stereotype that people in this country felt content and lucky to live under the prevailing political system was as difficult to eradicate as lice in elementary school classrooms.

So, I drew on more data. I spoke to them about the repression, the domestic conflicts fueled by the housing deficit, the high divorce rate, the drama of the suicides about which the ruling party jealously guards the numbers, and the dream most shared by Cubans, that of emigrating to any other place in order to leave this Island. However, my explanations that a thousand and one dramas could hide behind those smiles tourists saw in the streets did not achieve any effect. The cliché of national contentment was stronger than any argument or statistic.

But even the most widespread and enduring clichés may one day run into the reality that proves them false. That laughter on the lips or the cackles set off by anything at all have disappeared from Cuban streets. The faces of sorrow and annoyance are seen on all sides and, instead of those jocular and hilarious phrases of yesteryear, now emerge complaints, insults and offenses. It gives the impression that a conflict is always about to break out with fists or that anyone might jump down another’s throat at the slightest difference of opinion or friction.

A French friend who worked in Cuba for a foreign firm for many years returned a few days ago after more than five years in Europe. “What has happened to the people?” he asked me. “No one laughs,” he added when he saw that I didn’t understand him. He concluded with a phrase that made me realize that we all have long, serious faces 24 hours a day: “All the faces I see are sad, even the children don’t smile.” We don’t even use that mask that we put on so many times to exorcise pain or dissatisfaction. We have stopped even wanting to pretend that we are happy.

After that conversation I walked down the Avenida de los Presidentes in El Vedado, turned onto Calle 23, continued to L, approached Infanta and quickened my pace towards Belascoaín. Not a single laugh the entire way.


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.

Voices in Cuba: ‘Turn on the Power!’

Long before Hurricane Ian struck, power outages in Cuba were frequent. (14ymedio)
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14ymedio, Yoani Sánchez, Generation Y, Havana, 30 September 2022 — Yesterday, Thursday, in the afternoon and at night, several popular protests shook Havana with the cries of “Turn on the power!” and “Freedom!” There are still large areas without electricity, as is the case in our neighborhood, which will soon mark 72 hours without electricity.

Web browsing from mobile phones was cut off last night to prevent us from seeing the images of the demonstrations and right now internet access remains very precarious.

The food shortage situation is very complicated and the winds of Hurricane Ian have fueled inflation, especially in the prices of basic products such as bread, eggs and vegetables.

Social unrest, acid criticism of the dismal performance of state entities and the demand for change have also increased significantly. People can’t take it anymore. Hopefully this outrage translates into a liberation movement and not more people fleeing the Island, as sadly has happened in similar cases.


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.

Two Days in Havana Without Washing Up or Eating Anything Hot

The almácigo tree (bursera simaruba) at the entrance to the parking lot of our building that did not withstand the winds of Hurricane Ian has been lying there since Tuesday. (Yoani Sanchez)
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14ymedio, Yoani Sánchez, Havana, 29 September 2022 — Soon we will complete 48 hours without electricity in our neighborhood. The problem is not only the lack of power, but also that this area has many tall buildings and the water tanks — normally filled with pumped water — in people’s apartments have already been emptied. Carrying the water up the stairs 10, 12, 14 or 18 floors is very difficult, especially for the elderly.

The few food reserves that people had been able to store are also gone and I know families with convalescent elderly people who have not been able to wash or eat something hot for several hours. Meanwhile, the hum of the Ministry of Agriculture’s generator floods the neighborhood and one wonders why an entity that can’t even make Cuban fields produce food needs an electric plant to provide us with fruits, tubers and vegetables at a price in line with wages.

A friend has called me to ask if the freely convertible currency markets will auction off merchandise that needs refrigeration before it spoils, or if they will deliver free food to those families who have been left with an empty refrigerator, or the food spoiled by heat. I think my friend is watching a lot of foreign documentaries.


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.

“Hey, You Can’t Go Through Here!” a Guard From the ‘People’s House’ Yelled at Me

This place almost every Havanan has a memory, is now exclusive to officials and guards. (14ymedio)
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14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 30 July 2022 — I pick up the pace. The shared taxi I just got out of was going “at a snail’s pace” and if I don’t take longer strides I’ll be late for my appointment. I cross the Parque de La Fraternidad, I cross the street at full speed with a path that is still closed and leads to the ruins of the Hotel Saratoga, and I enter fully into the gardens of the Havana Capitol building. “Hey, you can’t go through here!” a stern-faced guard yells at me, adding: “You have to go on the sidewalk, it’s forbidden to go through this area!”

They are the same gardens where I practiced as a child with my first skates, the esplanade dotted with vegetation where I sat with my friends to imagine a future that most of them ended up realizing in another part of the world, and the space where Reinaldo waited for me for five hours 30 years ago, in a show of perseverance that sealed that incipient relationship. In other words, this place where almost every Havanan has a memory is now exclusive to officials and guards.

They are the same gardens where I practiced as a child with my first skates, the esplanade dotted with vegetation where I sat with my friends to imagine a future that most of them ended up realizing in another part of the world. (14ymedio)

Although I am in a hurry, I decide to question the man about that prohibition. “Isn’t this Parliament? Isn’t Parliament the People’s House? Why are its gardens off-limits to the people?” separated by several meters from the gleaming facade of a building that was humiliated for decades with neglect, carelessness and official insults. Now, already repaired and with a layer of gold leaf on the dome, the regime has gone from rejecting it to monopolizing it.

I’m already running late for my appointment, so I walk away from the Capitol, its dour guard and its exclusive gardens, while I think about the sensation I felt the first time I left Cuba. It was like an uneasiness that made me fear that in any public square or monument a policeman would come out to tell me that taking a picture with that sculpture, getting too close to that casing or touching that ancient piece of stone was a crime. After days without the uniformed man appearing to scold me, I relaxed and took off the heavy burden of waiting for the whistle, the shout or the fine for my behavior.

Yesterday, Friday morning, I longed for that lightness, when I couldn’t cross the manicured but censored gardens of my own city’s Capitol.


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.

Remember Sri Lanka

Takeover of the presidential palace by Sri Lankan protesters. (EFE/EPA/Chamila Karunarathene)
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14ymedio, Yoani Sánchez, Generation Y, Havana, 15 July 2022 – “What we need here is Sri Lanka,” “Remember Sri Lanka,” and “We’ll see you at the pool… like in Sri Lanka,” are some of the phrases Cubans are using right now to greet their friends. The mention of the Asian nation is not accidental: after several weeks of protests, thousands of people entered the luxurious residence of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and forced him to flee the country.

For months, the protesters denounced the mismanagement by the Sri Lankan Executive of the economic crisis, long power cuts and inflation, three evils that also fuel outrage on this island. It is enough to read the reports of foreign press agencies accredited in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s major city, to easily find the coincidences between the discomfort of its residents and the weariness that is heard in every Cuban corner.

In our case, the allusions to Sri Lanka are also a form of social self-criticism, recognizing that in the face of inefficiency and crisis there are people who choose to pack their bags and remain silent, while others go to the house of those responsible for so much disaster and force them to resign. Nor is it the first time that we Cubans have made use of the parallels offered by other geographies to denounce our situation and, incidentally, evade censorship.

A few years ago, the monologue The Problems in Cyprus, performed by the humorist Nelson Gudín, alias El Bacán de la Vida, became a sharp metaphor for our Island. Taking the headlines of the official press, given to reporting political problems and economic in other latitudes while silencing the national ones, the artist used that point in the eastern Mediterranean as a synonym for “Cuba.”

After his excellent performance, which was requested wherever he appeared, it was enough to say “how bad things are in Cyprus” for all of us to understand that he was talking about our own reality. Until today, in the popular speech of this Island there have been several phrases that allude to the Cypriot situation and that feed the surprise of some foreign students who come to practice Spanish in our country and do not understand the reason for this closeness with Nicosia.

Sri Lanka has now been assumed as a dream mirror, as a symbol of the power of a people when united and also as a verbal joke to warn the olive-green hierarchs that no palace full of comforts is safe when the citizen’s anger is overflows. Nor is the water of the presidential pool enough to quench the annoyance accumulated for decades, nor can the stately beds, with their soft pillows, calm a massive protest.

“See you in Sri Lanka,” a neighbor yelled at me yesterday from across the street. “We are all Sri Lankans,” I replied, while some children who passed by on bicycles also repeated the name of a country that a few weeks ago was barely mentioned in Cuba.


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.

In the Absence of Present Solutions, Today’s Cuban Regime is a Caricature of Republican Era Cuba

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14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 29 June 2022 — As popular indignation grows due to the continuous power outages that affect a large part of Cuba, the authorities deploy all kinds of justifications to place the responsibility for the blackouts as far as possible from their own management. There is no shortage of repeated phrases blaming the US embargo, the damage caused by the fall of communism in Europe and, of course, the allusions to Cuba’s former Republican period as a dark and miserable time.

Camagüey’s local newspaper, Adelante, has tried to placate its readers this week by reminding them that before 1959 “Cuba only generated 397 megawatts, 397,000 kilowatts, distributed in isolated systems, not interconnected, typical of an underdeveloped country. Only 56% of the population was connected to electrical service. Data that must be put in the context that electrification was a process that had only been implemented worldwide for a few decades.

The article in the Camagüeyan newspaper not only hides that detail, but also avoids saying that Cuba’s electrification was one of the best in Latin America in those years. The article seeks to create in the audience a sense of relief in the face of current problems if they are compared with the situation that their grandparents experienced. A rhetorical trick that is less and less effective in a society tired of attempts to instill fear through the past. In the absence of solutions in the present and progress in the future, the Cuban regime can only be a caricature of the country that existed before Fidel Castro came to power.

With this clumsy strategy they managed for decades to silence democratic demands, assuring that an opening process on the Island would bring back the excesses of the previous dictatorship. When the demands have turned to the inefficiency of the economic model to produce the most basic foods, the official spokesmen come out to recall the corn flour, without any accompaniment, that typified the national dishes during the Machadato.*There are public officials who have even dared to say that a dissident or independent journalist would work as a prostitute if she lived in Cuba in the first half of the 20th century.

All this verbal juggling, which once could generate fear and social paralysis, now reaps ridicule and ends up adding fuel to the fire of social annoyance. People have stopped hanging their heads and shutting up when one of those old stats is thrown at them. Only a system without a tomorrow can believe that it is going to break an entire population by taking the ghosts of yesterday out for a walk.

*Translator’s note: The term ‘Machadato’ refers to Gerardo Machado’s increasingly repressive years as Cuban president (1925-33) overlapping with the worldwide ‘Great Depression’ which began in 1929.


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 State Security Believes the Press is Muzzled with Crude Fumbles

Here we do not work with cash but with stories, news and daily drams. (14ymedio)
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14ymedio, Yoani Sánchez, Generation Y, Havana, 26 April 2022 — The “restless boys” of the Cuban political police no longer know what to ‘invent’ to boycott our journalistic work. Today it occurred to them (they have also done it before) to circulate my husband’s and my mobile phone numbers on several digital classified sites along with a false advertisement for the sale of dollars, euros and other currencies.

The phone hasn’t stopped ringing since and every call that comes in, of course, cuts off my internet connection and interrupts my editorial work, even the interviews and testimonies that I’m compiling for my series #MadresDel11J [Mothers of 11 July] are cut off with the desperate ringing of those who are looking for any cent of foreign currency to be able to escape from this #IslaEnFuga [Island in Flight].

If the agents of the State Security believe that with these coarse missteps the press is muzzled… they don’t know anything. This is almost “child’s play” compared to what we have had to experience in almost two decades of journalistic work. I am sorry, yes, for all those who dial the eight digits of my mobile in the hope of getting hold of those bills that are used to buy in the infamous stores in MLC (freely convertible currency) or to pay for a ticket to any point of world geography.

I feel very sorry for them, but no. This phone is not from an informal exchange but from a newsroom. Here we do not work with cash but with stories, news and daily dramas. Here the value is not reduced to a piece of paper but to the capacity that we have as a team to recount the deep Cuba.


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 Cafe-con-Leche-Cubanologists

The Spaniard Ana Hurtado and Mexican Jerónimo Zarco, visiting Cuba last week, invited by the regime. (Twitter/@Ana_Hurtado86)
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14ymedio, Yoani Sánchez, Havana, 30 March 2022 – Their tongues give them away. As soon as they get off the plane they begin to blurt our phrases like “you have no idea what you have here,” “life out there is very hard,” or “with this sun, what more do you want.” While saying things like that, they take some photos in the most hackneyed tourist places, drink a mojito to the health of some guerrilla, and publish a couple of photos on social media with the blue sea as a background.

The café-con-leche-Cubanologists come to explain our own country to us and convince us to accept, here, what they wouldn’t stand for should it happen in their country. With a foreign accent and academic titles that no one can verify, they stand on the peak of their ego and speak to us as if we were tiny ants who don’t understand the need to sacrifice ourselves for a greater good. They throw in our faces that we must sacrifice ourselves so that they can point to a map and say that “utopia” has been installed on this Caribbean island.

When a skinny woman asks them for something to eat on the terrace of a luxurious restaurant in Old Havana, they assure her that gluten is bad for one’s health and that it is best not to eat red meat, while the steak overflows on their plates along with a few slices of freshly baked baguetteThey are the same ones who accuse Cuba’s July 11th (11J) protesters of being violent vandals, while they incite the burning of police cars in their cities and, in their own lives, have thrown more cobblestones than flowers.

The café-con-leche-Cubanologists question why we complain about power outages if blackouts help prolong the life of the planet; they lament that we insist on having a supply of drinking water when we could drink with our cupped hands from the rivers (they do not know that most of the streams in the country are polluted or dry), and they tell us that we are complainers for demanding shoes for our children when the contact of feet with the earth is the most recommended for energy… health and other theories of the sort.

They love to get close to power. They have a special fascination for being invited to an official reception, allowed to speak in the University of Havana’s Great Hall, and getting a decoration pinned on their lapel. Because these so-called experts on the Island consider us restless and misguided children, who do not know how to value what we have, and who must be dealt with with a heavy hand, very heavy. They like it when dictators help them maintain the colorful vignette of paradise that they advertise on their Facebook or TikTok streams.

Nothing annoys a café-con-leche-Cubanologist more than his own object of study denying him. Like on that day when people came out shouting the word “Freedom” in the streets of the Island, or the growing numbers of those who throw themselves into the sea to escape this system, or when patients show through images and testimonies the profound deterioration of the public health system. This causes them deep discomfort, because their doctoral thesis is not designed to include all possible variables, but a single and unquestionable conclusion.

The café-con-leche-Cubanologists have been declining and are becoming more and more pathetic. Once there were Nobel Prize winners, renowned artists and illustrious professors. But over time, such an occupation has become so painful and unsustainable that they have been deserting en masse, to take refuge in silence or to channel their “talent” towards other geographies. But there are still some, pathetic and pernicious.


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 Claws of ‘Correos de Cuba’ in my Correspondence

I should be used to mail arriving at my house in Havana in these conditions, but no, I’m not used to it. (14ymedio)
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14ymedio, Yoani Sánchez, Generation Y, Havana, 22 March 2022 — The violation of my private correspondence is systematic and gross. This is how these two letters have arrived, one torn on the side and the other evidently opened and sealed later with adhesive tape, sent to me from the offices of the German chain Deutsche Welle with which I collaborate professionally as an opinion columnist and television presenter.

I know they will tell me that I should be used to the fact that the mail does not arrive at my house in Havana or arrives in these conditions, but no, I do not get used to it. No one should get used to the horror.


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.

Some Display a Sign and Others Leave Cuba

Capture of the moment in which Marina Ovsyannikova bursts into the news, crying out against the war in Ukraine.
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14ymedio, Yoani Sánchez, Havana, 16 March 2022 — Her name is Marina Ovsyannikova and until a few days ago she was an editor at Channel 1 of Russian official television. But after having the courage to appear with a sign against the war in Ukraine during a live newscast, her name has become synonymous with professional integrity and daring, as well as a symbol that many in authoritarian countries should learn from.

The day that Ovsyannikova unfurled her sign, the social networks about Cuba were immersed in the umpteenth debate around an official journalist who took to his heels and is asking for asylum in the country which, until recently, was the center of his attacks. As with every controversy of this type, some accused the presenter of being opportunistic, others appealed to empathy to accept his escape, and others converted his departure from the country into the new watershed that was going to divide us as Cubans.

A woman, alone, with a piece of cardboard written on by hand, shook up the entire controversy that was wearing us down. She made the arguments of one side and the other seem frivolous. “Stop the war, don’t believe the propaganda,” read the sign she showed on camera behind the news anchor. With that gesture, she not only showed immense decorum, but she also risked ending up in a legal process that would take her to prison for many years, although until now her audacity has resulted in an arrest and a fine.

Without intending to nor having this Island in her mind, Ovsyannikova was also speaking to us Cubans. She was telling those who disown anyone who works in an official media that one day, any employee of those propaganda mechanisms takes a role or uses her voice to denounce an injustice reaches a much larger audience than an activist shouting in a corner.

To the other party, who calls for mercy for the official journalists who, until yesterday, were defaming opponents and now celebrate having arrived “in the land of freedom,” this young Russian was reminding them that something can always be done. Every opportunity in front of the microphone, every chance to speak live and not denounce the dictatorship is a lost opportunity, and more time given to the longest-running authoritarian system in this hemisphere.

Ovsyannikova threw us against the mirror of our trifles. Not all those who work in the official channels are run-of-the-mill repeaters of slogans, nor is “nothing can be done because everything is controlled” of much use to evade civic responsibility. We have to watch closely so that this woman does not end up with her bones in jail, poisoned by a mysterious substance or pushed into exile; but also to call for each Cuban to use the crack that opens up to get rid of this horror.
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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.