The Day Peace Broke Out

Generation Y*, Yoani Sanchez, 25 March 2015 – “Peace broke out!” the old teacher was heard to say, on the day that Barack Obama and Raul Castro reported the reestablishment of relations between Cuba and the United States. The phrase captured the symbolism of a moment that had all the connotations of an armistice reached after a long war.

Three months after that December 17th, the soldiers of the finished contest don’t know whether to lay down their arms, offer them to the enemy, or reproach the Government for so many decades of a useless conflagration. Everyone experiences the ceasefire in his or her own way, but the indelible timestamp is already established in the history of the Island. Children born in recent weeks will study the conflict with our neighbor to the north in textbooks, not experience it every day as the center of ideological propaganda. That is a big difference. Even the stars-and-stripes flag has been flying over Havana lately, without the Revolutionary fire that made it burn on the pyre of some anti-imperialist act.

For millions of people in the world, this is a chapter that puts an end to the last vestige of the Cold War, but for Cubans it is a question still unresolved. Reality moves more slowly than the headlines triggered by an agreement between David and Goliath, because the effects of the new diplomatic mood have not yet been noticed on our plates, in our wallets, nor in the expansion of civil liberties.

We live between two speeds, beating on two different wave frequencies. On the one hand, the slow routine of a country stuck in the 20th Century, and on the other, the rush that seems disposed to mark the whole process of the giant of the north. The measures approved this last 16 January, which relax the sending of remittances, trips to the island, the collaboration in telecommunications and many other sectors, suggest the idea that the Obama Administration seems willing to continue making offerings to the opposing force. Obliging it to hoist the discrete white flag of material and economic convenience.

The feeling that everything can be accelerated has made some within Cuba reevaluate the price per square foot of their homes, others predict where the first Apple Store will open in Havana, and not a few begin to glimpse the silhouette of a ferry linking the island with Florida. The illusions, however, have not stopped the flow of emigrants. “Why should I wait for the yumas to get here, if I can go and meet them there?” a young man said mischievously, as he waited in line for a family reunification visa outside the United States consulate in the Cuban capital at the end of January .

The fear that the Cuban Adjustment Act, which was passed by the U.S. Congress in 1966 and offers considerable emigration benefits to Cubans, will be repealed has multiplied illegal migration. Those who don’t want to leave, are preparing to take advantage of the new scenario.

A few years ago emigration fever led thousands of compatriots to dust off their Spanish ancestors in hopes of obtaining a European Union passport, and now those who have family in the United States sense an advantage in the race for Cuba’s future. From there can come not only the longed-for economic relief, many think, but also the necessary political opening. Lacking a popular rebellion to force changes in the system, Cubans pin their hopes on conditioned transformations from outside. One of the ironies of life in a country whose political discourse has so strongly supported national sovereignty.

Those who have more problems dealing with what happened are those whose lives and energies revolved around the conflict. The most recalcitrant members of the Communist Party feel that Raul Castro has betrayed them. Eighteen months of secret conversations with the adversary is too much time for those stigmatized by a colleague in their workplace because they have a brother living in Miami or because they like American music.

Just outside the United States Interest Section in Havana (SINA), the government has not replaced those ugly black flags that used to fly between the anxious gazes of Cubans and the well-guarded building. No one can even pinpoint the moment in which the billboard boasting, “Gentlemen Imperialists, we are absolutely unafraid of you” was taken down. Even TV programming has a vacuum, now that the presenters don’t have to dedicate long minutes lambasting Obama and the White House.

Miriam, one of the independent journalists who is slammed by government television, wonders if now they are no longer demonizing anyone because of the rapprochement with American diplomats, or in order to cross the feared – but seductive – SINA threshold. Many wonder the same after seeing Cuban officials, like Josefina Vidal, smiling at Roberto Jacobson, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere.

In a house in the Cerro neighborhood where they have opened a pizza stand, a man in his 50s turned off the radio so he didn’t have to listen to Raul Castro’s speech on that Wednesday. He clicked his tongue angrily and shouted at his wife, “Look out, afterwards we get screwed!” Santiago, as he is called, couldn’t graduate as a doctor because his whole family left in the Mariel Boatlift in 1980 and he was declared “unreliable.” Although, since the mid-nineties he’s back in touch with his exiled siblings, he still feels uncomfortable because now what was previously forbidden is applauded.

Twenty-four hours after that historic announcement, all around the capital’s Fraternity Park it was like an anthill. Old American cars that operate as collective taxis in Havana converged there. The owner of a 1954 Chevrolet pontificated on a corner that now “the prices of these cars are going to go through the roof.” Surely, the man concluded, “The yumas are going to buy this junk like it’s a museum piece.” A country “for sale” waiting for the deep pockets of those who, until yesterday, were rivals.

This feeling that the U.S. will save the island from economic hardships and chronic shortages underpins an illusion clung to by millions of Cubans. We have gone from Yankee go home! to Yankee welcome!

The blacker official propaganda painted the panorama in the U.S., the more it helped to foster interest in that country. Every attempt to provoke rejection of the powerful neighbor brought its share of fascination. Among the youngest citizens this feeling has grown in recent years, supported also by the entry into the country of audiovisual and musical productions that celebrate the American way of life. “Sometimes, to annoy my grandfather, I put on this scarf with the United States flag,” confesses Brandon, a teenager who greets the dawn on weekends sitting on some bench on G Street. All around him, a fauna of emos, rockers, frikis, and even vampire imitators, who gather to talk loud and sing together. For many of them, their dreams seem closer to materializing after the embrace between the White House and the Plaza of the Revolution.

“We have a group of Dota 2 players,” says Brandon about his favorite pastime, a videogame that’s causing a furor in Cuba. He and his colleagues spent months preparing for a national tournament, but after 17 December they have begun to dream big. “The international championship is in Seattle in August, so now maybe we can participate.” Last year, the Chinese team was crowned champion, so the Cuban gamers haven’t lost hope.

The first Netflix user in Cuba was a foreigner, a European diplomat who rushed to get an account on the well-known streaming service, just to know if it was possible. It costs him just $7.99 a month, but the broadband necessary to reproduce video required him to pay the Cuban Telecommunications Company another $380.00 a month for an Internet connection. Now in his mansion he enjoys the most expensive Netflix in the world.

Baseball games with major league teams; famous rock bands coming to the island; Mastercards that work in ATMs all over the country; telecommunications companies that establish direct calls to the US; Colorado farmers willing to invest in the troubles of Cuban peasants; made in USA TV presenters who come to film their shows in the streets of Havana; and attractive models – weighed down by their own scandals – taking selfies with Fidel Castro’s firstborn. Cuba is changing at the speed of a tortoise that flies by clinging to the legs of an eagle.

Despite everything, the Plaza of the Revolution does not want to acknowledge its failure and has surrounded the reestablishment of relations with the United States with an aura of victory. It claims to have won through surviving for more than five decades, but the truth is that it has lost the most important of its battles. It doesn’t matter that the defeat is now masked with cocky phrases and boasts of having everything under control; as a jaded Santiaguan says, “After so much swimming they’ve ended up drowning on the shore.” Seeking that image of control, Raul Castro has not reduced the repression against dissidents, which in February reached the figure of 492 arbitrary arrests. The Castro regime extends a hand to the White House, while keeping its boot pressed on the non-conformists in its own backyard.

However, the disproportion of the negotiating forces between the two governments has been noted, even in popular jokes. “Did you know that the United States and Cuba broke off relations again?” one of the incautious mocked in December. Before an incredulous, “Noooo?!” the jokester responds with a straight face: “Yes, Obama was upset because Raul called him collect.” There is all the material poverty of our nation contained in that phrase.

While no one believes that the Castro regime will end up crushed by McDonald’s and Starbucks, the official propaganda occasionally revives a cardboard anti-imperialism that no longer convinces anyone. Like that in Raul Castro’s bombastic speech at the 3rd CELAC Summit in Costa Rica, in which he made tough demands for the reestablishment of relations with Washington. Pure fanfare. Or like Fidel Castro’s latest message to Nicolas Maduro, offering him support “against the brutal plans of the U.S. Government.” Or like the calls to defend the Revolution, “before the enemy that tries new methods of subversion.”

The truth is that on December 17 — St. Lazarus Day — diplomacy, chance and even the venerated saint of miracles addressed the country’s wounds. We needed a half century of painfully crawling along the asphalt of confrontation on our knees to bring us a little of the balm of understanding. Nothing is resolved yet, and the whole process for the truce is precarious and slow, but on that December 17th the ceasefire arrived for millions of Cubans who had only known the trenches.

*Translator’s note: This is the longer version of this article originally published in El País Semanal.

A Robinson Crusoe-like Singularity

An illustration of Robinson Crusoe.

An illustration of Robinson Crusoe.

Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 23 March 2015 — A young Panamanian told me in detail about the two weeks he spent in Havana, the new family that welcomed him here, and his surprise at a coastal city with almost no boats. His story resembled those of many who arrive on the Island for the first time, ranging from amazement to happiness, passing through tears.

However, his most astonishing conclusion was that that, thanks to the country’s disconnection, he had been able to live that long without Internet. Fifteen days without sending an email, reading a tweet, or worrying about a “like” on Facebook. On returning to his own country, he felt as if he’d been at a technology rehab clinic.

The same thing happened to Richard Quest, the well-known presenter of the Business Traveller program on CNN. This weekend we saw the British journalist hallucinating before a 1959 Cadillac, which he classified as a real “living room on wheels.” Aside from the beauty of a car like that, and its excellent state of preservation, I don’t know if Quest is aware that he was looking at a vehicle that was preserved because of its owner’s inability to acquire another, more modern one, at a dealership.

Robinson Crusoe, abandoned on his island far from the developed world, surely kept some pieces of his shipwrecked boat, but like any human being, he deserved access to modernity and progress.

I don’t know if the world is ready for our country to cease to resemble a mid-twentieth century sepia-toned postcard. Will it accept that we no longer appear as a country of “beautiful” ruins, with people sitting around on street corners because it makes no sense to work for such low wagers, and a population smiling at tourists because, among other reasons, these foreigners have access to the longed-for hard currency? Will the world allow us to find our identity if we no longer cling to this Robinson Crusoe-like singularity?

Will the world allow us to find our identity, if we no longer cling to this Robinson Crusoe-like singularity?

I address these questions to the rest of the world’s inhabitants, and not to the Cuban government, because the latter has demonstrated that a society locked in the anomaly of a forced past is much easier for the powers-that-be to control. My fears are that Latin America, the United States, Europe and the rest of the world are not prepared for a modern, competitive Cuba that looks to the future. A country with problems, like everyone, but without that patina of the fifties that is so attractive to those nostalgic for that decade.

It is possible to stop being Robinson Crusoe, but we have to ask ourselves if the world is prepared to see us return from the shipwreck.

“Hello? Hello?”

Public telephones in Cuba (Silvia Corbelle)

Public telephones in Cuba (Silvia Corbelle)

Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 13 March 2015 – She dialed the number and waited. Nothing, not a ring, not even a busy signal. She tried again and then got a woman’s voice telling her to wait on the line. After several minutes she realized it was a scam, but she’d already lost half the value of her prepaid card. Finally, she was able to connect, but her mother’s voice sounded as if she was speaking under water and she was barely able to say she was fine and that she missed her. The line was cut and her call to Cuba ended.

Among the many dramas that play out because of emigration, in the case of Cuba we have to add the complications of communicating with Island. We have the most expensive rates in the world for those who want to communicate with us, only comparable to countries at war or nations collapsed by some conflict. Cuban exiles have spent billions over these more than fifty years to talk to their families in their native land, resources subtracted from the hard work of opening a path to a new reality.

Thus, the announcement of a direct connection between Cuba and the United States for voice calls has been received with hope, a sign that such telephonic absurdity may soon end. The signing of the agreement between the US-based IDT Domestic Telecom Corporation and our national monopoly ETECSA opens the door to other possible understandings in this important area. It is a first step whose effect is still barely noticed, but which is undoubtedly good news for those living with affections fragmented by the Florida Straits.

The agreement between ETECSA and IDT is undoubtedly good news for those living with affections fragmented by the Florida Straits

In Cuba, expectations are focused not only on being able to call the United States directly without having to go through third countries. Eyes also shine when people imagine that they might be able to access the Internet via this pathway. A data connection managed by American companies but accessible from the Island has become the most widespread desire for those who don’t want to wait another year to enter cyberspace.

However, this possibility has not yet been mentioned by ETECSA which, like any company that responds not to commercial interests but rather to ideological ones, prefers to prolong censorship over the Internet to earn money. But that’s just for now. Still and all, it is a relief that very soon Cuban exiles and emigrants living in the United States well see a reduction in the stumbling blocks to communications with their relatives in Cuba. Picking up the phone, dialing a Cuban number and waiting for a line will not continue to be an adventure with unpredictable results.

Mexico is running out of tears

Mobilization in Mexico City for 43 missing. (Twitter Juan Manuel Karg)

Mobilization in Mexico City for 43 missing. (Twitter Juan Manuel Karg)

YOANI SÁNCHEZ, Havana, 24 November 2014 — When I visited Mexico for the first time I was impressed by its tremendous potential and enormous problems. I was amazed by a culture whose calendar is lost in time, especially when compared to a Cuba that is still a teenager. However, most shocking for me were all the warnings and advice from friends and acquaintances about the insecurity and the dangers that might await one in every street.

The most heartbreaking testimony of that visit, which I heard from the mouth of Judith Torrea, a Spanish journalist based in Ciudad Juárez who collected the stories of mothers whose teenage children never returned to their jobs or their schools.

It pained me to see how violent death has become commonplace in different areas of this beautiful country. La Catrina – Mexico’s grande dame of death – was no longer smiling, rather her empty sockets seemed a sad premonition of what is needed to live in Mexico. The disappearance of the 43 students from Ayotsinapa has exceeded the horror already suffered by a society where corruption, an ineffective legal system, and the armed force of narco-traffickers have thrived for a long time. As if a people already torn apart by what they have lost could suffer new wounds.

Each one of these disappeared young people is around the age of my son Teo, some of their photos remind me of his swarthy face and slanted eyes. He could have been one of those who one day left school and decided to protest against the status quo. All indications are that the local political power, mixed in with the drug cartels, violently ended the lives of those who still had the better part of their existence ahead of them. Over the last few weeks their families have gone from tears to hope and back to pain. The sad end is not confirmed and no one wants to accept it as fact, but the evidence suggests the worst case scenario.

Mexico is running out of tears. It is the responsibility of Latin America to accompany this beloved nation in the search for answers to the disappearance of the students, but also to the solutions of the grave social and institutional problems that caused it. To the citizens, for our part, we offer our solidarity, and we share their pain and their anger. Let no one look their child in the eyes without remembering those who are missing.

Our wall has not fallen … but it is not eternal

The fall of the Berlin Wall or the birth of a new era (Archive Photo)

The fall of the Berlin Wall or the birth of a new era (Archive Photo)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 9 November 2014 – My life up to then had always been lived between walls. The wall of the Malecon that separated me from a world of which I’d only heard the horror. The wall of the school where I studied when Germany was reunified. The long wall behind which the illegal sellers of sweets and treats hid themselves. Almost six feet of some overlapping bricks that some classmates jumped over to get out of classes, as indoctrinating as they were boring. To this was added the wall of silence and fear. At home, my parents put their fingers to their lips, speaking in whispers… something happened, but they didn’t tell me what.

In November of 1989 the Berlin Will fell. In reality, it was knocked down with a sledgehammer and a chisel. Those who threw themselves against it were the same people who, weeks earlier, appeared to obey the Communist Party and believe in the paradise of the proletariat. The news came to us slowly and fragmented. Cuba’s ruling party tried to distract attention and minimize the matter; but the details leaked out little by little. That year my adolescence ended. I was only fourteen and everything that came afterwards left me no space for naivety.

Berliners awoke to the noise of the hammers and we Cubans discovered that the promised future was a complete lie

The masks fell on by one. Berliners awoke to the noise of hammers and we Cubans discovered that the promised future was a complete lie. While Eastern Europe shrugged off the long embrace of the Kremlin, Fidel Castro screamed from the dais, promising in the name of everybody that we would never give up. Few had the insight to realize that that political delusion would condemn us to the most difficult years to confront several generations of Cubans. The wall fell far away, while another parapet was raised around us, that of ideological blindness, irresponsibility and voluntarism.

A quarter century has passed. Today Germans and the whole world are celebrating the end of an absurdity. They are taking stock of the achievements since that November and enjoying the freedom to complain about what hasn’t gone well. We, in Cuba, have missed out on twenty-five years of climbing aboard history’s bandwagon. For our country, the wall is still standing, although right now few are propping up a bulwark erected more at the whim of one man than by the decision of a people.

Our wall hasn’t fallen… but it is not eternal.

Tiananmen Returns

The Tank Man became internationally known, caught standing before a column of tanks in the Tiananmen revolt (1989)

The Tank Man became internationally known, caught standing before a column of tanks in the Tiananmen revolt (1989)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 30 September 2014 – Memory can rarely be put to rest. Memories don’t understand permissions or authorizations, they return, period. For a quarter of a century the Chinese government has tried to erase the events of Tiananmen Square, but now the thousands of young people who are protesting on the streets of Hong Kong evoke them. It’s hard not to think of that man with the shopping bag stationed in front of tank, while looking at these people who demand the resignation of an official as servile to Beijing as he is unpopular.

Twenty-five years of trying to clean up the official history of what happened in that other social explosion that ended in the most brutal repression hasn’t accomplished much. Those streets full of peaceful but exhausted people show it. However, there are also great differences between the 1989 revolt in the Asian giant and the current demonstrations in their “special administrative region.” The fundamental change is that we are participants—from our televisions, digital newspapers and social networks—in every moment the people of Hong Kong are experiencing. The lack of information that surrounded the Tiananmen Square protests now has its counterpart in a barrage of tweets, photos and videos coming from thousands of mobile phones

For how many years will the Chinese government try to erase what is happening today? How will they strengthen the Great Firewall within the country so that people don’t know what is happening so close by? The violent repression of last Sunday only serves to add to the determination and the number of protestors in the streets of the ex-British colony. However, despite the multitudes and the numerous digital screens shining in the Hong Kong night, memory persists in taking us back to one man. An individual who was returning from the market and decided that the treads of a tank were not going to crush his remaining civility. Twenty-five years later, reality is echoing his gesture.

The Lessons of Lope de Vega

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Flash

Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 18 September 2014 – A friend visting Cuba for the first time asked me why the government can put an end to the illegal distribution of the so-called “audiovisual packets.” “They just have to detect who makes it and trades in it, to be able to stop it,” the young man speculated. I reminded him of the work Fuenteovejuna, written by Lope de Vega. In three acts, the noted Spanish playwright tells how a town rebels against the abuse of power. The villagers unite against the injustice and together assume responsibility for the death of the local oppressor. “Who killed the Commander? Fuenteovejuna, señor,” we learned from the theater of the Golden Age and have put into practice, at least in the compilation and distribution of programs, documentaries and other digital materials.

My friend listened incredulously to my explanation, so I offered a more concrete example. Some months ago a traveled to Spain to participate in a technology event. Before saying goodbye, my family and friends asked me to bring them various things, as is common in such an undersupplied country. However, unlike other times when I left with a long list of shoe and clothing sizes, this time the requests were very different. A neighbor on the third floor wanted an update of the Avast antivirus and asked that I download a course in small business accounting. Two cousins noted the details of a videogame—with all the updates—so I could bring it back. A niece’s husband asked me for PDFs of some magazines about industrial design and almost all agreed that an off-line copy of Revolico—the Cuban Craigslist—would be fantastic.

The list of things to bring was very significant to me. I alternated the soap and deodorant, unavailable in the stores these days, with drivers for an acquaintance who lost the installation disks. The sweet seller on the corner asked me for a digital encyclopedia of pastry, and a friend who is learning to drive needed a simulator for a PC. A photographer colleague asked me to download some Android apps that wold let her retouch images and a relative learning English demanded all the chapters of a Podcast to practice that language.

The two nights I spent in Granada I barely slept two hours, because the list of what I had to download off the Internet was very long. I took advantage of the connectivity to also download about fifty TED talks, to bring some of the fresh wind of entrepreneurs and creative people to the Island. I renamed some files to be able to find them more easily in the numerous folders containing the requests and returned to Havana. In less than 48 hours the orders were delivered, even a Pilates course on video requested by the owner of a nearby fitness center, and a digital gallery for a university professor who urgently needed images of Egyptian art. Everyone was satisfied.

Several weeks passed and one day I got the latest update of the “packet” that was circulating. To my surprise, the TED talks included in it were exactly the same files I’d downloaded from the web and later renamed. So I could confirm that all of us—in one way or another—form a part of and feed this alternative bulletin board that circulates hand to hand.

Poor Commander, you already know that the packet is “all for one, señor,” like Lope de Vega taught us.