The Sacred Way

Reina Street in Central Havana. (14ymedio)

Reina Street in Central Havana. (14ymedio)

Yoani Sanchez, 8 September 2015 — The paint drips into the cracks and holes and over the rusted metal poking through the columns and the ceilings. A colorful layer that covers over cobwebs, cracks and dirt, like make-up masks scars and wrinkles. Havana preens for the arrival of Pope Francis. The facades along the streets are touched up where the Bishop of Rome will pass by and popular humor has derisively re-baptized the path “The Sacred Way.” It is an ephemeral blush, rushed, one that the rain and the months will wash away.

They have not been able to camouflage the people, however, with optimism. The strokes of the painters, rushing to meet their schedule, don’t cover the skin or the worries. From early in the morning, Habaneros go out with their bags hanging from their shoulders looking for food. “Not even the pope coming has put something in the shops,” complains a woman on the corner of Manrique and Salud, while a friend directs her to Galiano Avenue where, she assures her, “they have good hot dogs for sale.”

Bergoglio isn’t going to pass by the empty refrigerators in the stores, so the touch up doesn’t include pretending that there is food, or disguising the shortages. Thus we are saved from the cartons of chicken thighs and the powdered milk extended with sand! There are no cosmetics to cover up the economic downtown we are experiencing. The market stands and shelves remain indoors, far from all the pomp of the papal entourage.

Our Sacred Way is hollow, purely a stage set, with the crudest props, the least believable.

Machado Ventura: Neither Young Nor Female

Machado Ventura in 2012, at the eighth plenary session of the 1st National CDR Directorate. (JCG)

Machado Ventura in 2012, at the eighth plenary session of the 1st National CDR Directorate. (JCG)

Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 31 August 2015 — If anyone embodies the most antiquated orthodoxy of the Cuban political system, it is undoubtedly Jose Ramon Machado Ventura. With his frail gait and infinite power, the vice president of the Councils of State and Ministers represents the most reactionary and ultra-conservative wing of the island’s government. Thus, the excessive role he has gained in the media in recent weeks worries many.

Machadito, as his elders call him, has starred this summer in activities ranging from visits to sugar mills and a meeting with cattle ranchers, to the speech at the closing ceremony of the Federation of Cuban Women Congress, a day at the 10th Congress of the Young Communist League, and the closing words this Saturday at the National Council of the University Students Federation. All this, although he is neither a farmer, nor a woman and much less young.

So many photos and statements have been published in the official press about the second secretary of the Party Central Committee are giving shape to a question on the mind of many Cubans. Will the most intense hardliners end up imposing themselves on the reformers who will potentially be part of power in Cuba? The frequent appearances of Machado Ventura on the public scene leave no room for hope.

Will the most hardliners end up imposing themselves on the reformers who will potentially be part of power in Cuba?

The little tree man some call this functionary, loyal to the core and grey in every mitochondria of his cells. To him is attributed a circular that prohibited the display of Christmas trees in hotels and public places in 1995. Years later, life imposed its own designs and now Santa Claus and colored lights are seen everywhere from the first days of December, in a defiant gesture that must in no way please this man who is a doctor by profession who has long since forgotten the last time he treated a patient.

This octogenarian, who acts as if he knows everything, represents what should end once and for all in Cuba. He incarnates this old-fashioned power that only approaches those below only to demand from them greater efficiency and more sacrifices. In his person is the sum of despotism, arrogance, the superiority of someone who hasn’t boarded a bus in decades, nor counted out the centavos to buy a a couple of pounds of chicken, and much less felt the cold emptiness of a refrigerator maintained on the average monthly salary.

Fortunately for the future, Machado Ventura will be one of those faces that are lost in history. Like in one of those jokes so popular in Eastern Europe that later jumped to the island, when someone looks for their name in some encyclopedia and finds barely a succinct note. Perhaps it will say he was a “cadre of the Cuban Communist Party who lived during the era when Cubans resumed the practice of decorating with trees and garlands at Christmas.”

Cloud Seeding or the Sword of Voltus V

The Japanese anime Voltus V

The Japanese anime Voltus V

14ymedio biggerGeneration Y, Yoani Sanchez, 28 August 2015 — Undone, with the sparks of short circuits clouding his vision and the cabin smashed into smithereens, Voltus V faced the worst end against a fearsome enemy. However, at the last minute, he drew his sword and in a clean cut slew his enemy. Japanese anime, so popular on the island during the eighties, seems to have inspired the Cuban authorities in their tendencies to hold off on certain solutions until a problem has already resulted in the worst ravages.

This has happened with the recent announcement that, as of this coming September 15, a campaign will begin to “artificially increase the rain.” Through a technique known as “cloud seeding,” Pyrocartridges will be launched from a Russian Yak-40 plane so that the water vapor particles will condense, and this condensation will produce precipitation, according to the official press.

The first reaction of many on reading the news was to wonder why they hadn’t done something like this earlier. Did the country have to get to its current state of hydrological emergency for Voltus V to draw his sword? With the dams at no more than 36% of capacity and 25 reservoirs completely dry–at the so-called “death point”–now the experts from the National Institute of Hydraulic Resources (INRH) propose to bombard the clouds?

The answers to these questions not only alert us to the insolvency and inefficiency of our state apparatus to handle certain issues, but also clearly indicate that they have not been up to the task to preserve this valuable resource. As long as leaks and breaks in the country’s water system continue to waste more than 50% of the water pumped, no water project will be sustainable.

As long as leaks and breaks in the country’s water system continue to waste more than 50% of the water pumped, no water project will be sustainable.

On the other hand, it is worth questioning how water management has been approached for decades in our nation, which has prioritized the creation of large reservoirs. This decision has ended up damaging the riverbeds of the countless dammed rivers and has reduced the sediment they carry to the coasts, with the consequent erosion of flora and fauna in the deltas.

­Of course, many of these reservoirs–now below half their capacity, or totally dry–were built at a time when the Hydrologist-in-Chief made decisions about every detail of our lives. The marks of his excesses and harebrained schemes are still apparent in our country, excesses that failed to give our people more food, more water and more freedom.

The marks of excesses and harebrained schemes are still apparent in our country, excesses that failed to give our people more food, more water and more freedom

So enormous public works of damming the rivers and streams were undertaken to the detriment of other solutions that would have helped us to ease the current situation. Among them, investments in wastewater treatment and the desalination of seawater, which surrounds us on all sides. Every hydrological bet in the country was placed on one card: the rain. Now, we are losing the game.

If the announcement of “cloud seeding” had been made in a country with an environmental movement, we would see protests in the street. The method is not as innocuous as the newspaper Granma wants us to think. In fact, the critics of this practice consider it “an alteration of the normal rhythm of nature,” and argue that interference with moisture in one part of the country could compromise the rain pattern elsewhere.

Looking up to see whether or not the rains come, we Cubans are waiting for something more than a crop of clouds altered with a blast of silver iodide. We deserve a coherent hydrology policy, over the long term, without magic or spells, but with guarantees. May the next drought not find us like Voltus V, destroyed and thirsty, raising an arm to draw our majestic sword… that we haven’t carried for a long time.

Tsipras’ “Betrayal”

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, during an interview with state television. (Alexandros Vlachos / EFE)

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, during an interview with state television. (Alexandros Vlachos / EFE)

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 14 July 2015 — A week ago he was a hero lauded by the official Cuban media, today he is a political corpse many fear to mention. Alexis Tsipras negotiated and lost. Sanity has been imposed over his his initial bravado, and the pact he is about to accept has turned him into a traitor to his own politics. The critical voices within his party are already being heard about the agreement he has closed with the Eurozone, and Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution is keeping an embarrassed silence.

A third rescue, which will be around 86 billion euros, has been approved to pull Greece out of the quagmire. The money will come accompanied by conditions that force the Greek government to raise taxes, cut pensions and engage in privatizations. Far from that intransigent posture of the man who was congratulated by Fidel Castro, “for his brilliant political victory,” in the recent referendum.

Tsipras has accepted what until recently he rejected. All his incendiary nationalistic rhetoric has ended in a pragmatic gesture of compliance. Political greatness? Awareness of defeat? A final grimace of goodwill before heading out the backdoor of power in Greece? It’s hard to know. Most importantly he has chosen not to separate Greece from Europe, to exorcise the demon of the “Grexit,” and in passing has disappointed all those who incited him to lead an entire nation to economic suicide.

The lines in front of the ATMs, the empty shelves, and the growing fear in the population have done more than all the winks of solidarity from other corners of the world that fell on this Greek, though the crisis has not marked his face with a single wrinkle, there is no ‘tic’ of concern. Even at the agreement table, where he spent his last political capital, he has been seen as imperturbable, beautiful, young.

The adversaries of the European Union will accuse him of having sold the country to foreign interests and those who never believed him will look on him with pity while muttering “we told you so.”

Now the diatribe rains down on him. The adversaries of the European Union will accuse him of having sold the country to foreign interests, and those who never believed him will look on him with pity while muttering “we told you so.” There is no way this Greek play where the Syriza party leader is the protagonist ends up as something more than a political tragedy for his party and himself.

Like a sublime statue, Tsipras has ended up trapped in the marble of his verticality; the populism he himself unleashed has devoured him. Some promises meant to charm the voters, when put into practice made the country fall below the point it had reached until now. The pantomime of a referendum was the ultimate gesture of vanity before reneging on his positions.

Tsipras will be diluted in the coming weeks, when the parliaments of the European nations, including Greece, discuss the agreement and approve its implementation. Every step toward getting the rescue and complying with its demands will extinguish this figure that dazzles a part of a nation with his rhetoric.

None of those who applauded his daring will pat him on the back to acknowledge he has chosen for his country and not for himself. For them, Tispras is the uncomfortable reminder of what might have been, the missed opportunity to project, through Greece, their own vendettas.

Carnival Cruise Lines, A Paradigm of Our Times

A cruise ship from the American company Carnival Cruise Lines (14ymedio)

A cruise ship from the American company Carnival Cruise Lines (Carnival)

Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 9 July 2015 – There are several ways to react when faced with another person’s affluence. One of them is the one taught to us by the Castro regime from the time we were little, and that is based on anger and stigmatizing the prosperous. A Robin Hood-like intransigence, the point of which is to snatch from the other person the “excess” or whatever he “has too much of.” This animosity toward anyone who makes progress, accumulates property, or enjoys certain material comforts, has ended up becoming an inseparable component of our idiosyncrasy, although the times seem to be changing.

“I am never going to go on a cruise, but the more they come… the more we gain,” a retired man said yesterday, chewing tobacco and wearing a shirt so worn out his skin showed through. The official news just announced that the US company Carnival Cruise Lines received authorization from Washington to travel to Cuba, and the gentleman was expressing his own opinion about the luxuries enjoyed by others. This symbol of a capitalism of pleasures, fun and wastefulness is about to dock in Havana and it is noteworthy that officialdom will receive it not with shouts or slogans, but rather will welcome it.

Cubans don’t appear scandalized when we talk about these floating behemoths that will arrive with sumptuousness and money, a lot of money. Rather, people calculate the benefit involved when the giant of the seas touches land and a flood of tourists descend with bulging wallets and overflowing sunscreen. Restaurant owners near the Port of Havana are rubbing their hands and tchotchke sellers are hoping to improve their sales.

“Carnival Cruise Lines is the last fig leaf that has been removed and it lays bare their shameless fascination with money, their own and others’.”

Others, like the gentleman with the worn out shirt and the chewing tobacco, will probably not benefit at all from Carnival Line’s arrival. However, unlike in the past when he had spit with anger at these “exploitative bourgeois who come to leave us their trash,” now he seems disposed to cope with such an exhibition of ostentation and glamor. Asked about his tolerance for others’ luxuries, the old man explained that, “There are people here who live like that, so grandly, but they’re up there,” as he pointed a finger skyward to indicate the nomenklatura. “Here the difference is that we will see them coming by sea and they won’t be hiding what they have,” he said.

To preserve the succulent assets associated with power, the government itself is changing its discourse regarding the wealth of others, and trying to attract those, “rich people, bourgeois, empowered,” whom they renounced and fought for decades. However, in order to reap the benefits of luxury tourism, they are sending a contradictory message to their citizens who grew up under calls for egalitarianism and austerity. Carnival Cruise Lines is the last fig leaf that has been removed and it lays bare their shameless fascination with money, their own and others’.

Emigrating in the Third Age

An old man. (Silvia Corbelle)

An old man. (Silvia Corbelle)

Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 23 June 2015 – The building where I live is like a diminutive Cuba, where the larger country appears represented with its vicissitudes and hopes. Fourteen stories that at times offer a biopsy of reality or a representative fragment of life outside. For years, the emigration of young people has marked the life of this ugly concrete block, constructed 30 years ago by some optimistic microbrigadistas* in order to put a roof over their children’s heads. The majority of these children, now men and women, do not live on the island today. However, the exodus has also spread to a worrying extent among those of the third age.

A few weeks ago in the hallway I stumbled upon a neighbor whose children left some time ago for the country to the north. Between postcards at Christmas, visits every now and then and nostalgia, the family has tried to overcome separation and the pain of absence. The man of the family, now retired and almost 70, commented to me that he was selling his apartment. “I’m leaving,” he said, smiling from ear to ear. Another retiree who overheard, spat out derisively, “You’re nuts! Why are you leaving if all that’s left to you are ‘two shaves,’?” alluding to the possible brevity of the existence ahead of him.

Not to be outdone, the mocked one replied, “Yes, it’s true, all that’s left for me is ‘two shaves,’ but I want them to be with a Gillette.” With a pension of barely 20 CUC a month, a home that every day shows the passage of time and the lack of resources to repair it, the future emigrant won’t be stopped by gray hairs or old age. What is making so many seniors choose to relocate abroad despite age, health and the uprooting of their lives? They also feel the lack of opportunities, the day-to-day difficulties, and – most significantly – end up concluding that the social project to which they gave their youth has defrauded and abandoned them.

They feel the lack of opportunities and the day-to-day difficulties, and have ended up concluding that the social project to which they gave their youth has defrauded and abandoned them

“All I want is a peaceful old age, without having to stand in line all the time,” the determined old man explained to me. For him, his country is synonymous with shortages, problems getting food, an old age of racing to get potatoes and fighting against those who want to get ahead of him in the line to buy eggs. The apartment he built with his own hands for the enjoyment of his children now has peeling walls and a clogged toilet. “With my pension I can’t arrange to get things fixed,” he detailed.

Even the elderly are packing their suitcases on this island… and from the scale model that is this Yugoslav-style building, old people are also saying goodbye.

* Translator’s note:
For more information about microbrigades see page 26 of this report by Cuban architect Mario Coyula.

The Landscape Before the Storm

The headquarters of the State phone company ETECSA in Havana. (14ymedio)

The headquarters of the State phone company ETECSA in Havana. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 15 June 2015 – Before the downpour there is a scent that crosses the city. It is the premonition of water, the anticipation of the cloudburst. The birds fly to their nests and the most cautious seek a doorway where they can shelter until the rain passes. This impression of something approaching is being felt lately about a possible opening of Internet connectivity for all Cubans. There is nothing concrete to point to confirm our massive entry into cyberspace, but the gusts of impatience can be felt in the air.

The topic of the web of networks has reached significant prominence in the official discourse of the last half year. Barack Obama’s administration had to “make a move” to wake up the bureaucrats in the Ministry of Information and Communications, who are trained to go on the defensive. With the January 16th implementation of a package of flexibility measures, outstanding among them links to the sector of new technologies and connectivity, the White House has set more than one person scuttling on this island.

Four years after the installation of the fiber optic cable between Cuba and Venezuela, it seems that officialdom can no longer justify why we are among the countries with the least connectivity on the entire planet. On the other hand, American companies such as Verizon or AT&T, breathing down the neck of Cuba’s ETECSA phone company, are working as a catalyst to implement a data service that allows the Cuban telephone monopoly to hold on to the national market.

Conveniently, a document was leaked that puts into writing the national strategy for the development of broadband connectivity infrastructure in Cuba

The lesson of Isabel Dos Santos, the richest woman in Africa and the daughter of the Angolan president, should be keeping the dauphins of power in Cuba awake right now. They know that whoever gets a slice of the telephone and communications market will have a guaranteed fortune exceeding a lot of zeros. However, they are also aware that a company of this type requires agreements, roaming contracts, favorable rate packages, attractive offers for users. In the world we live in it can be summed up in one word: connectivity.

This reality is denied by the ideological outbursts, in the style of Abel Prieto when he claimed that he will give “free and open access to the Internet, and not to those who have money, but to those who need it to support their studies and research.” Mobile phone service alone shows that in the battle between politics and the market the latter comes out the winner. Cubacel users – save those who receive the privilege because they work for State Security or other strategic sectors – pay for it in convertible pesos. To purchase a cellphone requires the harsh practice of money in your wallet, not fidelity to any idea.

A few days ago, conveniently, a document was leaked that puts into writing the national strategy for the development of broadband connectivity infrastructure in Cuba. Despite the enthusiasm with which the text was received by those thirsting for the Internet, the deadlines proposed by the program are, at the very least, unconsidered. It talks about “reaching no less than 50% of households with access to broadband Internet by 2020,” while two years ago it was expected to have 100% connectivity “in Party organizations at the national, provincial and municipal levels, in State agencies, and in the Central Administrative Organs of the State.” It is not unlikely that right now there are people who are joining the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) in order to attain access to the vast World Wide Web.

It is not unlikely that right now there are people who are joining the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) in order to attain access to the vast World Wide Web.

On the other hand, Brett Perlmutter, director of Google Ideas, is visiting Cuba this week. His presence has been explained to the media as an exploration to “bring better Internet access to the Island.” According to a State Department official who asked to remain anonymous, “Google has made a proposal to the Cuban Government to help with the connectivity of the population,” adding, “we don’t know what they have proposed, but they have proposed something.”

Beyond what Google achieves, between official suspicion and postponements by Cuban functionaries, his presence on the Island reinforces the sense of urgency. He transmits to the Cuban Government the impression that its closing the doors to the sea of kilobytes not only is not working, but is under threat of being swept away from abroad and from within. Helium balloons, mini-satellites, WiFi antennas made from Pringles bags, clandestine wireless networks that share content, and even the irreverent weekly “Packet” of audiovisuals, are jeopardizing a structure designed for censorship, but inefficient in managing an opening.

There is a smell of rain these days. A gust of damp certitude that is wafting the bird of the Internet our way.