Athletes and Air Conditioners

Air conditioners pile up at Havana’s Jose Marti airport. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Bogota/Havana — Flight 254 climbs over Bogota on a cold, gray morning. Inside the plane members of the Cuban delegation is traveling back to Havana, after participating in the Central American and Caribbean Games held in Barranquilla, Colombia. For more than three hours, the restless athletes fill their area of the craft with conversations — which cross from one side of the aisle to the other — and that revolve, basically, around one issue: the purchases they have made to take home to the Island.

Other travelers flying on Avianca Airlines, on Tuesday, encountered more than twenty athletes dressed in blue uniforms marked with the flag with the single star. The composition of the group was heterogeneous. They were young people in perfect physical shape who evidently participated in the competitions; others with gray hair and the appearance of coaches, and third parties who were neither one nor the other, but who acted as guards.

As the plane broke through the dense layer of clouds over the Colombian capital a question broke the hypnotic silence of the ascent. “Hey, were you able to buy the split (air conditioner)?” an athlete sitting in row 11 loudly asks another, three rows back. The answer was also loud enough for everyone to hear. “Yes, I bought it with no problems, and also the bicycle and the parts that I need for the bike.” The brief dialogue triggered an avalanche of comments in the same style.

During the entire time the plane spent in the air, the group did not exchange a single word about the sports competition, the medals won, or the hard struggle for Cuba to come in second, after having lost the event’s scepter for the first time in almost fifty years. The contest they discussed was another. The protagonist was the game against the clock to be able to “leave the village and reach the markets” nearby, according to one of the athletes, or “to find where they sell things more cheaply to make the money stretch,” said another.

The jackpot, what really excited them and elicited grins, was not, for many of these young talents, to win the gold, silver or bronze, but to be able to return home with products and devices that will improve their quality of life. One boasted of having been able to “lift the suitcase a little bit with my hand” so that it did not register its whole weight during the airline check-in.

“I told the employee that they were bicycle parts although they are for a motorbike because it is easier to get them through,” boasted another. “They let me bring three suitcases and the extra they charged me I will get back quickly, because everything I brought is worth a lot more in Havana,” added an older man who seemed to be the manager of some sport. Beside him, a man with a military haircut and the same sports suit as the rest of the delegation listened without opening his mouth, but the backpack he had placed in the overhead compartment could barely be closed.

The plane began to circle over Havana. “We have to wait because we have been informed that the airport is closed for operations,” the captain informed the plane. While the passengers peered out through the windows at the same landscape repeated over and over, the athletes exchanged the latest recommendations for dealing with their luggage. “I’m going to pass the screening because I still do not have an import for this year, but I need you to take through the two phones I brought,” he asked one of his row mates.

Finally, the flight touched down and after the long line for immigration came the most anticipated moment for the anxious athletes: picking up their luggage on the belt. On one side of the conveyor, an employee of Customs shouted loudly that the AC units and televisions must exit through a small door that leads to the room where they scan each package to check its interior. The sports delegation was completely crammed in there.

Then an air conditioner came out, followed by another and then several more. The boxes were piling up, smiles lit faces, some took selfies in front of the growing mountain of appliances. Still, nobody was talking about medals.

It was time to exit to José Martí International Airport’s crowded waiting room. There were whole families waiting with babies or the elderly in wheelchairs. Screams, commotion and a woman in tears telling an athlete that seemed to be her son: “I knew you were going to bring it,” as she touches the box with the air conditioner with the relief of who imagines nights without sweating in a room kept in the comfortable 70s.

The scene repeats itself. The members of the sports delegation are hugging their relatives and distributing the first gifts. The tourists who have arrived on the same flight understand less and less. “Why do they have to bring those things?” asks a surprised Chilean who has come for a cousin’s bachelorette party. Nobody answers him.

The Country of ‘Wificulties’

Cubans connect to the internet on state-owned Wi-Fi networks. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 21 July 2018 — A small insect falls on they keyboard of my laptop, a few minutes later there’s another one while a third lands on my neck. A few yards away, a well-known filmmaker tries to block the sun shining on his screen and a lady screams some intimacies while videoconferencing with a family member who has emigrated. A stray cat approaches my bag and demands food, but I didn’t bring any, as I’ve come to a wifi access area only a few yards from my house.

I’ve been lucky enough to claim a bench, even if it doesn’t have any back, and after an hour of navigating my lower back is demanding some support. Then I move to an area near the staircase of a building, checking beforehand that there is no balcony over my head to be sure that some resident won’t throw water or food scraps onto my computer. I have found a good place on the stairs and my spine now has the relief of a wall to lean against.

After a few minutes I start to sense an unpleasant smell. Evidently someone used a nearby bush as a public toilet and my ideal “office” loses all its charm with that stench. I move somewhere else. Some children are playing baseball with an improvised bat and I put myself in a position where my screen is not in danger, but the sun is advancing towards the area and I calculate that I have half an hour before “the Indian” catches me.

The sky clouds over but now the battery is telling me it has less than 15% charge left. There are no outlets nearby and nobody who “resells” a little energy – a business that would be very lucrative to install in these wifi areas. So I adjust the screen brightness to save the battery, but with all the light around me I can barely see a thing. I manage to post a couple of messages in Twitter, check my inbox, and look over a contribution that has arrived for our daily newspaper, 14ymedio.

A drop of rain falls between the “D” and “F” keys. I have been lucky, it’s tiny and hasn’t managed to slip through the crack that would let it get inside to the circuits, the electrical contacts and, perhaps, the motherboard. My face reflects my fright as I wipe off the moisture and close the laptop. Looking around me, I see that while I’ve been focused on web pages and social networks, a stalker has sat down nearby and released his anxieties all over a bench.

I save everything and seek reliable shelter until the downpour passes. Under a small roof other websurfers talked about the news they’ve read, the messages they managed to receive before the rains came, and a half-finished visa application, but that was it until the sun came out again.

In spite of the wificulties, people squeeze the maximum out of the wireless signal they pick up with their phones, tablets and computers. The makeshift internet “café” hums with life all day, although for every connection hour users pay the excessive price of one convertible peso (CUC), more than half a day’s wages for the average state worker. Any thoughtful person would say that under these conditions you can’t get any work done, or do anything other than chat with friends or laugh at the memes. Every day, however, professionals of all kinds extract the most they can out of these places, sun, rain, insects and hungry cats notwithstanding.

The Cuba of Humboldt and Ruiz Urquiola

Ariel Ruiz Urquiola believes that the authorities want to seize his family’s farm. (Facebook)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 5 July 2018 — At the entrance to Humboldt University in Berlin, an inscription in Spanish says that the statue of the German scientist Alexander von Humboldt that stands there was a gift from the University of Havana, in homage to the man who has been called “the second discoverer” of Cuba. Cuban biologist Ariel Ruiz Urquiola repeatedly passed that statue with its serene face during his time at that institution of higher learning.

In recent days the name of this young researcher, 43, has graced the covers of numerous international media, for having maintained a hunger strike for more than two weeks. With that strict fast, Ruiz Urquiola demanded his release after being sentenced to one year in prison for the alleged offense of “contempt,” in a flawed case plagued by irregularities. Thus, the scientist put his life at risk to demand freedom, using his own body as a lever of complaint against what he considered an injustice.

On Tuesday, the Cuban authorities yielded in their stubbornness and released Ruiz Urquiola. For health reasons he was granted a parole which does not totally annul his sentence, but it does permit him to return to his home and to the agro-ecological project he manages in Viñales. Although his tenacity allowed him to win this battle, he knows that the eyes of the ruling party will be watching for any false step in hopes of making him shoulder “the blame” for his public demands, putting the Government on the spot and, above all, denouncing the ecological damage that it commits in that protected area of ​​the Cuban West.

If Alexander von Humboldt lived during a time of discoveries and explorations, Ruiz Urquiola is living during a hard time of complicity on this Island. The German explorer helped to expand knowledge of the geography, flora, fauna and even the topography of a country that he himself barely knew, but more than two centuries later the Cuban scientific community is trapped between a lack of resources and excessive state control. Researchers are now evaluated based not only on their abilities and the results of their projects, but most importantly on their ideological fidelity.

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that during all the days the biologist refused to eat, there were no pronouncements of solidarity, nor even a call to review his case, on the part of functionaries, educators and staff of Cuba’s Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment. Nor did any official entity linked to agricultural production, the care of the ecosystem or the study of fauna raise a single voice to demand justice for Ruiz Urquiola.

The official media never mentioned the case, although social networks lit up with messages that demanded his prompt release and his face was a constant presence on the alternative information networks that cross the country. Meanwhile, in contrast to the silence of the national scientific community, colleagues from other parts of the world put their names to the #FreeAriel movement.

More than 200 years ago Humboldt came across a country to explore, study and report on, now Ruiz Urquiola inhabits a nation where researchers are wary of every word and prefer silence.

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

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.

Renewal of Vows: The Red Scarf

Cuban children in the ceremony where they take on the red scarf. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 14 June 2018 –Three decades later, the woman is facing a familiar scene. A row of children dressed in their elementary school uniforms receive the new red scarf that replaces the blue one they had previously knotted around their necks. Like a déjà vu, she listens to her daughter repeat the same slogan she shouted out in her own childhood. The little girl, one knee on the ground, swears to follow the example of Ernesto Che Guevara, just like her mother had promised to do so long ago.

The school’s morning assembly started early this Thursday, June 14, the day chosen for the initiation of students who completed the third grade. They now become part of the José Martí Pioneers Organization and have started down a path where ideological excesses and political manipulation will follow them forever. The ceremony has all the traces of a religious initiation, almost mystical, despite of its being centered on an atheist guerrilla, who this very day would have turned 90.

To conclude the moment, the loudspeakers broadcast a song dedicated to Fidel Castro at full volume. “Louder, Louder!” the school principal shouts to the students, who must sing the boring tune verse by verse. “Louder, louder to be heard up there!,” he reiterates as he points to the sky, where, he believes, his Commander-in-Chief must have gone.

The music is over, the children shout the slogan that they will repeat in the coming years: “Pioneers for Communism, we will be like Che.” Then they leave the ranks and return to the unruly games of any child. The political “renewal of vows” is over.

The Moderate Is Also An Enemy

In the end, all of his art, his public image, and even his complaint have been determined by this entity – the faceless one – that he fears so much. (Artwork: El Sexto)

A friend calls me sounding depressed. For years he has chosen caution and the path of moderation but even so, he wasn’t able to avoid being labeled an enemy. In his work he avoided knocking on the doors of those the government found most “uncomfortable,” rejected support that he considered “radioactive” and appealed to his own self-censorship to avoid ending up on the opposing side. It did little for him.

My friend enjoyed a period of certain advantages for not having become “a radical.” He was invited to endless embassy receptions, where he was presented as a young exponent of “a reformist tendency among the left.” There, he worked hard to demonstrate that his desires for change were within socialism and that his work contained intrinsic “constructive criticism.”

Amid the mojitos and canapés, the smiling diplomats looked on him with satisfaction, pleased that on the island there are people who don’t shout freedom slogans, who continue to work within some state institution, but who are allowed to let slip sharp accusations about the bureaucracy, the impediments of conformism and the corrupt practices, without being labeled a mercenary.

My friend was everything they needed: an artist who pushes “from within the limits,” with grace, a bit of humor and always clarifying that “Cuba is not how the dissidents paint it to be.”

Thanks to this image, he had access to funds he described as coming from foundations or entities with no ties at all Washington or the international “right.” To pave the way for such economic support, he excluded from his art those voices that he feared could “contaminate” his work and limited contact with his most “controversial” acquaintances.

Thus, stepping cautiously, like someone picking his way over broken glass, my friend managed to build a reputation as an “uncomfortable” – but not censored –artist, a citizen who demands his rights but respects the current and “authentic” Cuban system, who speaks from the shadows but also “values ​​the achievements of the Revolution.”

He never counted, so as not to break that ideal construction, the police citations he received over the last years, the arm across his shoulders from so many cultural officials inviting him to avoid certain red lines, nor the bits of evidence he was collecting about the surveillance he was subjected to.

Often, so that there would be no doubts about his loyalty to the cause, he lent his name and image to critiques, in the national media, of those who took stronger positions. Later, sotto voce, he clarified to his friends that his opinions had been manipulated by State Security while, in reality, he was sympathetic to the lost sheep.

None of it mattered. This week, the name of my friend has appeared in an article published on an official website that describes opposition leaders and moderate artists as “recalcitrant.” Years of carving a “permitted” face went up in smoke with a click.

Now he calls me, wanting to denounce the injustice to human rights organizations, crying out because he is not put in the same bag, and detailing his pedigree. It is all in vain. They never trusted him, they always considered him the system’s adversary from the moment in which he reflected, in his art, the reality and embraced, timidly, with his work, a certain plurality.

Still stomping his foot, he emphasizes in the phone call that he doesn’t want to make “a media show” of it, nor offer himself “on a silver platter to the [country to the] North,” but these explanations he is offering are not for me, but to the other person listening in on the line. In the end, all of his art, his public image, and even his complaint have been determined by this entity – the faceless one – that he fears so much.

‘Doctor Zhivago’, An Old Acquaintance Opens In Cuba

Screenshot of ‘Doctor Zhivago’, inspired by Boris Pasternak’s novel. (CC)

Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, 25 January 2018 — The book was part of the private collection of a writer who went into exile and even though the title did not appeal I chanced it, bored in the midst of the publishing drought of the ‘90s. Its pages narrated a country I knew, but described a different place, convulsed, unjust and harsh. Doctor Zhivago came into my hands when the Soviet Union had disappeared and in it I found a part of the answers to explain that disaster.

A quarter of a century later, Cuban television finally broadcast the well-known film inspired by the novel, directed by British director David Lean. Released in that long ago 1965, the movie was absent from the screens of the island until 22 January of this year, though before the airing the program’s commentator warned about the picture’s ideological distortions.

An unnecessary clarification, because the story of Yuri Zhivago is well known on this island thanks to the infallible formula “there is nothing more attractive than the forbidden.” For decades, the work written by Boris Pasternak circulated from hand to hand – its cover wrapped in the boring state newspaper Granma to avoid indiscreet eyes – or, in recent years, in that elusive digital format that easily mocks the thought police.

Unlike George Orwell’s 1984Doctor Zhivago was not banned for predicting a totalitarian future that lined up along many points with our socialist Cuba, but because it described an uncomfortable past for those who wanted to present Russia as a country where the proletarians had achieved a Parnassian state of equality, comradeship and justice.

Instead of the Manichean vision taught in Cuban schools, Pasternak’s work focused on a tormented individual, shaken by social vagaries and more concerned with emerging unscathed from his circumstances than in sacrificing himself for a cause. He was an antihero far-removed from the “New Man” and the Soviet ideal.

The adventures the book had to circumvent also served as an argument to those who wielded the scissors at the Island’s publishers. Its publication in Italy 1957, the Nobel Prize it won Pasternak and the official pressures that forced him to reject the award contributed to the denial of Cubans’ right to read it.

The “camaraderie” in the Communist Bloc was filled such actions. An author censored in one of the countries that made up the vast red geography also made the blacklist in the other nations orbiting the Kremlin. Havana did not ignore that maxim and was faithful to its national stepmother, depriving its citizens of one of the twentieth century’s anthological works.

They censored it in Cuba not only out of ideological complicity with the country that economically sustained all the eccentricities of Fidel Castro, but because in its pages the Great October Socialist Revolution came out badly; it was a mass of informers, police, pressures of all kinds and lies. A suffocating scenario where the individual could barely protect her privacy and herself.

They say that when he was expelled from power, in 1964, Nikita Khrushchev read Pasternak’s novel. “We should not have banned it. I should have read it. There is nothing anti-Soviet in it,” he acknowledged then.

The Cuban censors, however, have not drafted an apology, nor is it necessary. History sounded the vigorous trumpet: the country they tried to protect from the supposed calumnies of the writer ceased to exist almost three decades ago; but Doctor Zhivago remains a vibrant and unforgettable novel.

Navigating Among the Travel and Immigration Nonsense

A Cuban rafter who emigrated seven years ago now wants to return on his yacht, but he has been told that his family in Cuba cannot go out for a ride on his boat from the Hemingway Marina. (umbrellatravel)

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 2 November 2017 — Three days and thirty calls, this is how Carla summarizes the time immediately after the announcement of the new travel and immigration measures. “I dialed all the numbers I had on hand,” she says, with a cup of tea in her hands at her home in Centro Habana. The nursing graduate is anxiously awaiting a reunion with her brother who left Cuba on a raft and has been based in Tampa for seven years.

However, in the complex skein of prohibitions in Cuba’s travel and migration policy, the relaxations that will take effect as of the first of January in 2018 have introduced more uncertainties than certainties. “He wants to come on his yacht so our family can take the boat along the Cuban coast and even fish,” she explains.

Several calls to Marina Hemingway have crash-landed the nurse’s dreams. “Your brother can arrive on his boat, but Cubans living on the island can not yet go out for a ride on the boat,” a voice told her from the other end of the line. Thus Carla came up against that part of the legislation that still hasn’t budged an inch.

For decades, Cubans have been locked in successive boxes. Some compartments are designed to hobble their ability to decide who governs the country and what newspapers they can read. In the last decade, some of those restrictions have become obsolete, or been repealed or changed, but their “hard core” still stands.

At the center of so many limitations is the government’s conviction that if it allows citizens to have greater spaces for decision and action they will end up overturning the current regime. A trip on a yacht along the Cuban coast could make Carla’s family wonder why they have been denied that pleasure for so long and increase their discontent.

What this hypothetical long-awaited journey can trigger has long-term connotations for the family.

The mother, with a monthly pension that does not exceed 15 dollars, will cry for joy when she sees, before dying, the face that has been hidden from her by el Morro, something that few Havanans have been able to enjoy. She may even stuff down a lobster tail freshly pulled from the water by her son, “the enemy who escaped the Revolution,” as he was described by the president of her local Committee for the Defense of the Revolution on learning of his departure.

When the earth recedes and they find themselves in the safe discretion of the immense blue, it is probable that Carla will tell the former rafter how she steals medicines from the hospital to sell on the black market and that she dreams of an immigration process based on “family reunification” that will get her out of the country.  “No one can stand it, my little brother,” she will confess, protected by the waves and the sky.

If that maritime route were to open, a partition of the sealed compartment in which they have been enclosed will collapse and will not be able to rise again. An interior wall, of fear and lack of opportunities, will be seriously damaged. Aware of that, for the moment, the ruling party must be meditating on all the costs of allowing such a thing.

Until now, and as things are going, everything seems to indicate that next year, the nurse’s rafter brother will be able to enjoy, in his status as an emigrant, something his relatives on the island are denied. Half-changes provoke these contradictions, but complete changes unleash fear at the highest levels.

With her cup of tea, Carla continues to dial phone numbers so that someone will answer a simple question: “Can we get on that yacht and walk the deck?” No one risks answering with certainty, but many wait for a slip that tears down that and other walls.