A Visit More Symbolic Than Political

The US president, Barack Obama talks with his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro. (White House)

The US president, Barack Obama talks with his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro. (White House)

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 18 February 2016 — The last time a United States president visited Cuba Havana’s Capitol Building had not yet opened, baseball’s star pitcher The Black Diamond died, and my grandmother was a little girl with messy hair and a penetrating gaze. There is no one left who remembers this moment who can tell us about it first hand, so Barack Obama’s arrival on the island will be a new experience for all Cubans.

How will people react? With joy and relief. Although there is little the president of another country can do to change a nation where we citizens have allowed a dictatorship, his visit will have a strong symbolic impact. No one can deny that the resident of the White House will be more appealing and popular among Cubans than the old and uncharismatic general who inherited power through his bloodline.

When the presidential plane touches down on the island, the discourse of the barricade, so commonly called on by the Cuban government for over half a century, will suffer an irreversible blow. It will not be the same as seeing Raul Castro and Barack Obama shaking hands in Panama to see them to meet on the territory that until recently was full of official billboards against “the empire” with mocking caricatures of Uncle Sam.

The Communist Party press will have to jump through hoops to explain to us the official welcome of the commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the “enemy country.” The most recalcitrant Party militants will feel betrayed and it will be clear to all that, behind the supposed ideology, there is only a determination to cling to power through the typical strategies of political chameleons.

In the streets, people will experience the enthusiasm of the unexpected event. For black and mixed-race Cubans, the message is clear and direct in a country where a white gerontocracy controls power. Those who have a T-shirt or sign with Obama’s face will flaunt it on those days, taking advantage of official persuasiveness. Fidel Castro will die a little more in his guarded Havana refuge.

“President” brand beer will run out in the cafés, where loud calls to “give me two more Obamas” will be heard, and there is no doubt that the civil registries that week will record several newborns with names like Obamita de la Caridad Perez or Yurislandi Obama. Pepito, the little boy who stars in our popular humor, will release a couple of jokes for the occasion, and tchotchkes sellers will offer items with the lawyer’s profile and the five letters of his name.

One thing is clear, however, beyond the trinkets of enthusiasm, the leader of the United States cannot change Cuba and it is better if he doesn’t try, because this national mess is our responsibility. His trip, however, will have a lasting effect and he should take advantage of the opportunity to send a loud and clear message in front of the microphones.

His words should be directed to those young people who right now are assembling a raft, fueled by their despair they carry within. He needs to let them know that the material and moral misery that surrounds them is not the responsibility of the White House. The best way in which Obama can transcend Cuba’s history is by making it clear that the perpetrators of the drama we are living are here, in the Plaza of the Revolution in Havana.

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The One-sided Paralysis of the Cuban Press

Television remains under a strict monopoly of the Communist Party to sustain a biased editorial line does not represent the national complexity.

Television remains under a strict monopoly of the Communist Party to sustain a biased editorial line does not represent the national complexity.

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 5 January 2015 – Sometimes I wish I lived in the country they show on television. This hopeful nation of rose-colored dreams presented by the official press. A place of props and slogans, where factory production exceeds goals and employees are declared “workplace heroes.” In this Cuba, bouncing off the antennas to reach our small screens, there is no room for sickness, pain, frustration or impatience.

The official Cuban press has tried to approach the country’s reality in recent years. Several young faces appear on TV programs to report on administrative negligence, poor services, or consumer complaints about bureaucratic paperwork. But even still, state journalism continues to be a long way from objectivity and respect for the truth.

Television, radio and newspapers are maintained under strict monopoly of the Communist Party, and not only because they are ideologically subordinated, but also because they are financed from the state coffers – money that belongs to all Cubans – money that they use to sustain a biased editorial line that does not reflect the national complexity.

The topics covered by the journalists of this partisan press represent the interests of an ideology and a group in power, not of the entire country. They never dare, for example, in their reporting, to question the authorities, nor the current political system, nor the organs of State Security nor the activities of the police, among other taboo subjects.

However, where the official press most betrays the precepts of balance and impartial information is in the testimonies they broadcast, in the voices they give space to and the opinions they express. By the grace of journalistic censorship, access to the microphone is granted only to those who agree with the government and applaud the actions of its leaders.

They never interview someone with a difference of opinion, or someone who believes the country should take other political or economic paths. Unanimity continues to fill the front pages and the news broadcasts, although for a long time now loud dissent has been heard on buses, in stores, in the hallways of institutions and even in classrooms.

At the beginning of this year an avalanche of reports filled the television broadcasts. The protagonists were young people who claimed to live “in the best of all possible worlds,” smiling with confidence in their future and not even dreaming of emigration. Not included among the opinions were those from anyone in the process of leaving Cuba, or feeling frustrated by their professional prospects, or submerging themselves in illegalities to survive.

In the almost 70,000 hours of annual television broadcasts not a single self-employed person complains about their high taxes. Parents who fear the growing violence in Cuban streets are never encountered in the Cuban media, and women beaten by their husbands don’t appear demanding legal measures to protect them from the abuse.

The teachers whose pay doesn’t allow them to live a decent life find no echo of their demands in the media, nor do dissidents appear to demand respect for their opinions. An inmate denouncing bad prison conditions has no chance to appear before the cameras, nor do the patients who have been victims of medical ethics violations or bad treatment in the Public Health System.

This entire area of Cuba, the widest area, remains outside the authorized media. Because the official Cuban press doesn’t exercise journalism, rather it proselytizes. Although it is made up of many professionals with university and post-graduate degrees, they do not have the freedom to engage in the work of reporting. Instead of looking for the truth, they try to impose an opinion. What they do cannot even call itself “the press.”

Are We Cubans More Unruly Than Other Peoples?

Telephone with the handset ripped off

Telephone with the handset ripped off

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 30 September 2015 – “Nobody takes care of anything,” raged the lady in line at the cash register of a State butcher shop. She was referring to those who leave the refrigerators open or who put their shopping baskets on the glass counters. However, she didn’t seem to notice the lack of air conditioning, the stench coming from some of the freezers where the goods were spoiled, or the single employee taking payments, while the others looked on with their arms crossed. The customers are to blame, according to the feisty woman.

Social indiscipline has become a recurring theme in reports and interviews in the national media. Vandalism is blamed for everything, from problems with public transport buses to the deplorable state of planted areas. Official journalists raise the accusing finger more and more against the pillage, while barely addressing the educational and political system that has molded these citizens so bent on looting and destruction.

Social behavior is shaped by one’s environment. On a spotless floor, a clean sidewalk, in a cared-for city, many will imitate the environment and avoid dirtying, destroying or degrading it. Context greatly influences people’s attitude toward public spaces and common goods. But when the environment is dirty, assaulted by carelessness and becomes hostile, those who inhabit it will neither respect nor care for it.

Cubans are no more unruly than other human beings and yet, right now, a park filled with children’s play structures needs to be guarded like a bank, so that the swing seats, the iron from the carousels or the ropes from the climbing nets aren’t stolen. In poorly lit areas of the city people defecate or urinate, microdumps rise in thousands of corners and a stream of dirty water can fall from any balcony, directly on pedestrians below.

When the environment is dirty, assaulted by carelessness and becomes hostile, and those who inhabit it will neither respect nor care for it

The situation has gone on for so long that many have come to believe that it is in the DNA of our identity to not care for our surroundings. “This city couldn’t have a subway, because imagine the stink in those tunnels with people taking care of all their needs down there,” states a gentleman with the tint of a shabby official, while waiting at a bus stop.

With his words, the man suggested that we Cubans cannot enjoy the privileges of modernity and comfort, because we are unable to maintain them. However, this same “unredeemable exterminator” that we have become can get on a plane, go to New York or Berlin, and in two weeks in those place be throwing trash in the bins, not lighting up in public places, and cleaning the mud off their shoes before entering an office.

Vandalism is a problem present in all societies. Laws and control regulate it and keep it in check, but there it is. It is a part of our human nature that a moment of rage makes us take a blade and inscribe our name on a recently painted wall, or rip the fabric of a movie theater seat. Fines and other penalties should keep this vulture we all shelter within us from getting out of hand.

However, the context has to encourage people to care for things. It is not enough to call for discipline and formal education, the individual has to feel that it’s worth the trouble to preserve his or her surroundings. A street full of potholes, a late and overloaded bus, a sidewalk plunged into darkness, its single streetlight broken years ago, are the ideal components for depredation and pillage.

Many, like the lady who complained at the butcher’s, no longer perceive the scenario of constant attacks on the rights of consumers and citizens that our society presents. So accustomed to the abuse, the inefficiencies, the breakage and the high prices, they throw all the blame on those “unruly Cubans” who couldn’t “live anywhere without destroying it.”

Raul Castro, The Altar Boy

Pope Francis greets Raul Castro on his arrival in Cuba. (EFE)

Pope Francis greets Raul Castro on his arrival in Cuba. (EFE)

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 22 September 2015 – The Cuban leader, Raul Castro, has accompanied Pope Francis at all his Masses during his tour of the island. From the one celebrated in Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution to the words pronounced at the Santiago de Cuba Cathedral. Like one seeking absolution for a long list of sins, the General President has traveled from the capital to the east of the country, following the papal entourage.

Castro appears to be fulfilling, in this way, the notice he gave in Rome last May. He said then, “If the Pope continues speaking like this I will go back to praying and return to the Church, I’m not joking.” The return to the faith appears to include not only him, but a part of his family that has accompanied him, along with the executive branch of the island and officials from the state press.

Despite the sudden mystical fervor, national television carefully avoided showing images of the Cuban president when the faithful were reciting the Mass, making the sign of peace, or repeating some prayer when he was present. The cameras only focused on his arrival and departure from temples and plazas.

Some television newscasters who participated in a special ‘magazine’ feature, broadcast during these three days have faced a particular plight. Several faces well-known for their staunch ideological discourse have had to moderate their vocabulary, and are salting their phrases with psalms, biblical allusions and reverence for religious figures.

The pirouettes performed by these presenters and journalists, to avoid words like “revolution,” “communist” or “comrades,” have also been worthy of the political circus they represent. All that was missing in the studio was a crucifix and a Bible, but they weren’t necessary.

The excessive incense of these days is not appreciated by many. “This goes from the sublime to the ridiculous,” a 63-year-old Communist Party militant who lives in my building told me. “From atheism to religious servility,” he added, referring to the attitude of the Cuban authorities and the broadcast of complete Masses in the national media.

Now, all we need is to hear Raul Castro’s next public speech, to see if he also has replaced the bellicose “Homeland or death!” with the more concise, “Amen!”

Generation Y Behind Bars

Men handcuffed(Luz Escobar/14ymedio)

Men handcuffed(Luz Escobar/14ymedio)

Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 17 September 2015 — With the publication of the Official Gazette No. 31, there have been many published opinions about the pardons granted to 3,522 prisoners in anticipation of the visit of Pope Francis. Most of the criticism has focused on the fact that the beneficiaries include no one sentenced for political reasons. However, on reviewing the list of the released prisoners, another element jumps to mind.

At least 411 of those pardoned have names that begin with the letter “Y,” more than 11 percent of the total. It could indicate the we are talking about people between 20 and 45 years of age, because from the beginnings of the seventies to well into the nineties it was a fad in Cuba to give children names starting with the penultimate letter of the alphabet. Thus, we are in the presence of the “New Man,” born and raised in a society that felt itself part of “Utopia,” living under Soviet subsidies and excessive ideological indoctrination. How is it possible that so much of this human clay has ended up behind bars?

How is it possible that so much of this human clay has ended up behind bars?

Meat from the social laboratory and the skin of prison, Generation Y is far removed from what was projected for it. It has come to live in a different country from the one promised, and to survive in this jungle it has had to do the exact opposite of what it was taught. Although the list of released prisoners doesn’t include the crime for which each one was condemned, it is easy to adventure what led many of these Utopian men and women to end up in a cell.

Perhaps among them is Yoandis who killed a cow to feed his family, or a Yuniesqui who stole fuel from a company to resell on the black market to make up for his low wages. Who knows if some Yordanka was led down the road to marital revenge because of gender violence? Or a Yusimi, who learned from the time she was little in the tenement where she lived that it was better to strike first than to strike twice? From little Pioneers with their colored neckerchiefs, they passed to being inmates in gray uniforms; from the Cuba of Marxist manuals they fell into the real world.

A generation trapped by circumstances, forced many times to commit crimes, pushed at others to escape, and condemned to few opportunities. The 411 families of these children of the Cuban experiment will be relieved right now to see them return, as will the relatives of the rest of those pardoned. But, the society they will encounter on passing through the bars continues to belie that which was once explained in front of the blackboards and at the morning school assemblies. Prison has been a part of the social alchemy that has touched them.

Leopoldo Lopez, The Freest Prisoner In The World

Leopoldo Lopez waves from a window of the Ramo Verde military prison in Caracas. (EFE)

Leopoldo Lopez waves from a window of the Ramo Verde military prison in Caracas. (EFE)

Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 11 September 2015 — I met him and it was impossible not to notice him. He stood out among everyone: young, with an impressive energy and an intelligence that suggested he would go far. Yesterday he was sentenced to 13 years and nine months in prison by a court as biased as it was malicious. On hearing the sentence I started to calculate how old his two children would be when he left prison, but I immediately stopped short. Leopold Lopez will not serve those years behind bars, I told myself, nor will he disappoint the first impression I had of him.

The authorities don’t learn. They don’t take into account that the bars magnify a political leader and the pain suffered in the cells hangs on his chest like a medal won on the bloodiest battlefield. Leopold will leave there strengthened, while on the other side, a fearful Nicolas Maduro, will not know what to do with the freest prisoner in the world. Every day that he spends behind bars, this Venezuelan will hang like a shameful weight from the dying remnants of the Chavez regime.

I also remember the moment I met Lilian Tintori. A woman who had to leap over her own fears to become the citizen who last night read a message from her husband after the unjust sentence. There was a firmness in her that had not yet emerged in the first exchange of phrases we shared in Madrid. However, the absurdity that she has experienced has emphasized her strength, brought forward her resolve.

The authoritarians know not what they do.

Leopoldo will return. Young, energetic and rewarded for his pain. Lilian is already here, with this determination that makes us ask ourselves, would we be willing to do the same for our family and for our country?

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.