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.

How Do You Tame Computer Users?

User on Revolico, the Cuban “Craigslist” (Silvia Corbelle, 14ymedio)

Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 18 May 2015 – Nimble fingers over the keyboard, a life divided between reality and the digital world, plus the gratification of amusing yourself, learning, teaching and being free through technology. These are some of the points shared by those of us in Cuba who have linked ourselves to information and communication technologies, whether for professional reasons or simply from personal passion. Now, a new association is trying to support these enthusiasts of circuits and screens, although the management of the organization proposes many limits on autonomy and ideological ties.

The new Computer Users Union of Cuba (UIC) will enjoy the official recognition that has been lacking until now for independent groups of bloggers, gamers and programmers. It will have statutes, a code of ethics and members will be able to rely on support and visibility through its structure. Nor is there any doubt that at the next international event where “pro-governmental civil society” appears — in the manner of the Summit of the Americas — the new affiliates of the UIC will attend.

If the promoters of these activities, in whatever part of the world, want to know how a pretend non-governmental organization is generated, they should pay attention to the details of the genesis of the new organization that will bring together Cubans engaged in new technologies. It will be an excellent opportunity not to see “a star being born,” but to witness how a black hole is created that that will seek to engulf one of the wildest, freest phenomenon parallel to power in Cuban society today.

They will try to engulf one of the wildest, freest phenomenon parallel to power in Cuban society today

The process for signing up for the UIC will be open until July 15. Applicants must submit the registration form, a photocopy of their academic degree, and sign a letter accepting the draft Bylaws and Code of Ethics, which first must be downloaded from the Ministry of Communication’s website. It is surprising that at this point the organizing committee which emerged from the entity’s constituent congress – despite its undeniable technological capabilities – doesn’t have its own digital site. It would have required a “civilian” portal that does not include “.gob.cu” in its internet address, because that would identify it as subject to the government… not as an NGO.

The UIC defines itself as an organization with a professional profile, with both voluntary and at the same time select affiliation, created under Article 7 of the Constitution of the Republic of Cuba. A glance at this part of the Constitution clarifies that these organizations “represent their specific interests and incorporate them into the task of edification, consolidation and defense of the Socialist society.” As if that isn’t enough, the president of the organizing committee, Allyn Febles, who is also vice rector of the University of Information Sciences, told reporters that “the new organization has as a base the unity of it members in support of the social project of the Cuban Revolution.”

An attempt, no doubt, to assign a political color to kilobytes, tweets and apps. As if they felt the need to demarcate the limits of technologies starting from Party considerations. Why are they so crude? Why isn’t it possible to create a Union of Cuban Computer Users dedicated to teaching the population to use the tools that allow them to more freely and easily access new technologies? Why do they have to interpose themselves between the keyboard and the social networks, and not just from any ideology but from a particular sectarian and exclusionary ideology?

The restrictions don’t end there. In its introduction, the ethics code defines a priori computer users as “committed to our Socialist Revolution…” while in Article 3 it imposes maintaining conduct “in accord with the norms and principles of our Socialist society.” The situation worsens, because Article 13 of the code itself imposes on the UIC members the obligation to inform on colleagues who incur offenses. Rather than an entity to preserve the rights to technology enthusiasts, it is creating an oversight body to control them.

It is expected that the members of the UIC will put intolerance ahead of information sciences, being soldiers ahead of being internauts…

Like a ghost of the past, the little check box of “political membership” reappears on the application form for admission to the UIC, where the applicant must put checkmarks next to organizations such as the Communist Party, the Young Communist Union or… the Federation of Cuban Women, the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, and the Cuban Workers Center. Which contradicts the official spokespeople who shout themselves hoarse saying that these latter three are not political but rather social entities. Which is it?

The nice part of the UIC’s founding documents is where they warn that the UIC “will be working to create a climate of scientific and technical creation and for the elevation of its members to a professional level and a permanent technological upgrade, encouraging the identification and the recording of the knowledge of its associates and their preparation and fitness to undertake specific projects, as well and the identification of opportunities to impact the economic development of the country and the exporting of goods and services, and in this way contributing to an increase in the welfare of its members.”

But why, in order to receive these undeniable benefits, must they show political obedience and loyalty? The answer is simple: because it is expected that the members of the UIC will put intolerance ahead of information sciences, being soldiers ahead of being internauts… being censors ahead of being young people who play with binary code.

From “White Udder” to the seven-legged bull

Illustration of a cow. (14ymedio)

Illustration of a cow. (14ymedio)

Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 5 May 2015 – For a long time the extraordinary, the unusual, was our hope. On this Island which must have been Atlantis, the reincarnation of Alexander the Great was born and there lived a cow who gave the most quarts of milk in the history of humanity. Like all childish people we needed to feel that nobody surpassed us and that the ordinary rested far from our borders. White Udder, the cow that still owns the Guinness World Record, was a sacrificial victim on the altar of this national and political vanity. Gone are the times of those exaggerated ranching achievements, now we can only crow about our anomalies.

Muñeco is a bull with seven legs. The local press just narrated his story, a wild yearling born from two commercial zebu breed cattle, and ultimately adopted by the cattle rancher Diego Vera Hernandez in the Trinidad area. What distinguishes this exemplar from so many others that die of hunger and thirst in the Cuban countryside is that springing from its back, near the shoulder hump, are three additional legs and one testicle. Its anatomy includes everything the official rhetoric needs: on the one hand the inconceivable, on the other, this piece of virility that should not be lacking in anyone or anything that wants to brag about being made in Cuba.

Gone are the times of those exaggerated ranching achievements, now we can only crow about our anomalies.

Muñeco’s three legs have saved him from the illegal slaughter to which so many of his peers succumb due to the needs and poor livestock management displayed by the current system. That piece of another bull hanging from his back has freed him from the middle-of-the-night butcher’s knife because a clever farmer realizes that he has before his eyes a fair animal, a circus creature, to show off to journalists at the agricultural fairs. But there is not much difference from this pet with mischievous genes and that cow that represented all our hopes of seeing milk run in the streets and factories drowning in cheese and yogurt.

White Udder died from the excesses of a leader who needed results, but Muñeco has lived for the pride of this nation burdened by its own malformations.

Welcome Hollande, Goodbye Hollande

François Hollande and Raul Castro, at their meeting at the Palace of the Revolution. (EFE)

François Hollande and Raul Castro, at their meeting at the Palace of the Revolution. (EFE)

Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 12 May 2015 — The official reception at the airport, the photo shaking hands with the host, the wreath laid at the statue of José Martí and the expected lecture at the University of Havana. How many foreign politicians have followed this script in recent months? So many that we have lost count.

A true shower of presidents, foreign ministers and deputies has intensified over Cuba without daily life feeling any kind of relief from such illustrious presences. To this parade of world leaders has been added, this week, the French president François Hollande, who assured us that his country wants to “strengthen ties with Cuba” so that both nations, “assume greater international leadership.

During his stay, the politician met with Raul Castro, visited Fidel Castro in his home, and awarded the Legion of Honor to Cardinal Jaime Ortega y Alamino. The agenda did not include, however, any meeting with dissidents and activists. His vision of the Cuban stage could not be completed with a critical eye on the Government’s relationship with its own people. As the presidential plane lifted off, the official version of events barely registered on the retinas and ears of the French.

In a lecture at the University of Havana’s Great Hall, Hollande said that “to come to Cuba is to come to a country that represents for Latin America a form of expression, of vindication of dignity and independence.” Although he didn’t say it, the French president knows that he is in a nation with prisoners of conscience, without political parties, where opponents are threatened and repressed. A land without union rights, with an illegal independent press, and a military power that is handed down in the family.

On this visit we needed reaffirmation that the France of the Rights of Man still believes in the unshakeable values that recognize the rights of individuals to disagree, to express their differences without fear and to organize around them. We demanded some words of support, words that would confirm for us that the government of the European country is willing to support, in Cuba, the desires for freedom that have so marked and modeled its own national history.

In the minds of many, the first French president on Cuban soil will be remembered for his complacent posture toward the authorities

A man who has declared that French and Cubans have “shared the same movement of ideas, the same aspirations, the same philosophical inspiration, cannot believe that he has visited a country where citizens have chosen by their own free will to subordinate themselves to a totalitarian power. Does Hollande think that we have tacitly chosen the cage? Does he suppose, perhaps, that we are comfortable in our chains?

On the positive side of this visit, we will be left with the opening of the new Alliance Francaise headquarters, and a wider collaboration in tourism, education and health. However, in the minds of many, the first French president on Cuban soil will be remembered for his complacent posture toward the authorities. Hard to remember, after all these years, a trip with a script so very played-out.

Hollande was accompanied by a business delegation made up of companies such as Pernod Ricard, the hotel chain Accor, Air France, the distribution group Carrefour, the telecommunications company Orange, and several banks. Closing deals in the energy and tourist sectors was ultimately the most substantial share of their presence in Cuba, although the meeting with Fidel Castro has dominated the headlines.

Time will pass and our country will progress to a new political situation. We will hear some historians say that the influence exercised by the French president was decisive on this path to change. But that will be later, when the historians rewrite the past and adorn it at their convenience. For now, it is difficult to know how this insipid visit could influence our future.

From Ferry Line to Internet Line

Key West-Havana Ferry, takein in 1951 (Miami History Archives and Research Center)

Key West-Havana Ferry, taken in 1951 (Miami History Archives and Research Center)

Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 7 May 2015 – Toward the other side of the sea, that point on the horizon that so many Cubans dream of, several of the curious were gazing yesterday as they sat along Havana’s Malecon. Hours earlier word begun to spread that the United States has authorized “certain specific licenses for passenger ferry service” to Cuba. The rumor was enough for many to play with the idea of how this country would change if it were connected by boat to the other shore. A thousand and one illusions have been unleashed in recent hours, although the four ferry companies authorized by the U.S. Department of the Treasury have yet to receive approval from the Cuban authorities.

However, the symbolic effect of this relaxation reaches dimensions that transcend the political gesture. We live on an island and this has given the sea, for us, the character of an insurmountable frontier, a wall that isolates us from the world. When a Cuban prepares to visit another country, we rarely use the verb “to travel,” but rather appeal to a more dramatic word, salir: which means to “go out” or “get out” or even “break away.” To escape our insularity, to get to the other side, we have to saltar: “leap over.” A catamaran from Florida arriving along our coast every day would break – at least metaphorically – this geographic isolation used, for the last half century, for ideological purposes.

People in the street, however, are waiting for more than allegories. Now hopes focus on trips by Cuban-Americans becoming cheaper with the new maritime connection. Many dream that the holds of these boats can also bring the resources for private enterprise, agriculture and domestic life. “The pieces I’m lacking for my Russian-made Lada car,” Cheo, an engineer turned taxi driver, dreamed yesterday. His brother bought some Soviet car parts in Miami but he can’t send them because “they weigh too much and it’s too expensive by air.”

In the afternoon, two men were arguing in a crowded bus about whether the Cuban government would authorize a ferry landing in Havana. “Not even crazy people are going to allow that, boy,” shouted the older one, continuing his argument with, “Do you really think they’re going to let a boat with an American flag dock here?” The younger one, however, turned the conversation to his interests, ”What we need them to do, in addition to a ferry line, is put in an Internet line.” And so he finished with an ironic laugh.

Cubans appear ready to make up for lost time. To fit into the world in every way possible. To convert the sea that for so long was a barrier into a path, a road, a connection.

A Flooded May Day in Havana

The sewers can barely deal with the mud from the storm (14ymedio)

The sewers can barely deal with the mud from the storm (14ymedio)

Yoani Sanchez, 1 May 2015 – The El Cerro neighborhood is mud and tears right now. One of Havana’s most populous municipalities is trying to recover from the surprise rains that left three dead in the city, more than 1,400 houses affected and 27 partial or total building collapses. Many families lost their most precious belonging and the whole city has that smell that is left after floods, a mixture of sewage, garbage and pain.

The main scene of the tragedy experienced in the Havana capital is indoors, in the homes where they couldn’t save even a chair, but the official press tries to minimize it because it happened a few hours before the “triumphant” First of May, which is meant to show the world “the Cuban people’s attachment to the socialist system.”

The drama of those still cleaning out the mud with own efforts, shoveling it from their living rooms and bedrooms, doesn’t fit with today’s “workers’ glory,” foreign guests, and even Nicolas Maduro’s trip to share the platform in the Plaza of the Revolution with those who live in houses well-protected from inclement weather. Meanwhile, a few yards from the place where they waved flags and chanted slogans this morning, those affected by Wednesday’s storm tried to recapture the rhythm of their lives. The high water mark, which reached nearly six feet in some areas, is still fresh on the facades and in memories.

They should have suspended a parade that has cost thousands of pesos needed to help the victims

There are countries where it costs a president his job if he doesn’t personally go to the scene of an accident or a natural disaster. The absence of government officials in an area affected by a storm, a volcano or an earthquake earns the enmity of the citizens in many places, and the condemnation of the international community. In Cuba, however, fanfare has been imposed as a strategy to divert attention from the problems. This May Day has been an example of how official propaganda privileges triumphalism and minimizes misery.

A lady was sitting on the corner of Amenidad and Infanta Streets this morning, looking at the sky. Her hands wet from bailing out the water from the downstairs apartment where she lives. “I’m just waiting for the parade to end,” she said in a loud voice to anyone who would listen, with that wave of courage that overcomes us when we no longer have anything to lose. “When that’s over, maybe they will remember us,” she reaffirmed with a certain illusion.

They didn’t organize any parties in this miserable place. Out of shame, they should have suspended a parade that has cost thousands of pesos needed to help the victims. A little political sanity would have been required… but, who can ask those who have lived as well-to-do bourgeoisie for 56 years to think like the proletariat?