Absence Means Forgetting

Even if Castro were to leave for Esmeralda, Punta Alegre, or Corralillo today, he could not escape the doubt that his visit was more fruit of the pressures than of his own desires. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 25 September 2017 — Most active politicians like to have their photos taken while greeting children, talking to factory workers, or visiting a disaster area. These images, seen on countless occasions, do not translate into better government performance, or even real concern, but at least they are consistent with a formal and public ritual.

More than two weeks ago, Hurricane Irma devastated countless towns in central Cuba, affected communities near the north coast and left the coastal areas of the city of Havana under water. Since then, Raúl Castro has not been to any of the affected sites and has not been seen near the houses that lost their roofs, the sidewalks filled with the furniture drying in the sun or the places sheltering some who  have no homes to return to.

In the first days of his absence, speculations focused on the octogenarian’s health and a possible indisposition making him unable to travel to the most affected areas. However, Castro had enough physical energy to go and receive Nicolás Maduro at the airport. He has chosen to take a photo with the Venezuelan president rather than with the population battered by the meteoric winds.

The feelings left by this distancing are contradictory. His most ardent supporters speculate that he does not want to add expenses to the national budget with a visit more symbolic than effective. Others say he is letting younger officials take his place before the cameras so that they can gain visibility before 24 February of next year, when he will step down from the presidency of the country.

His critics, however, speak of the weariness that has gripped the General after a sequence of defeats, among them not being able to end the island’s dual currency system, or to reduce corruption, or to offer Cuban workers dignified wages that can become their primary source of economic support, or to attract foreign investment. Exhaustion has taken over the leader of the Communist Party a few months before he leaves power.

Now it is too late for the photo next to the victims. Even if Castro were to leave for Esmeralda, Punta Alegre, or Corralillo today, he could not escape the doubt that his visit was more the fruit of pressures than of his own desires. A snapshot next to an old woman whose house is nothing more than the foundation would seem to be a resounding act of gimmicky populism, but the lack of that image makes him look as distant and indifferent.

If he goes where Irma left a trail of pain he loses; if he stays in his palace he also loses.

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Goodbye August, Nobody is Going to Miss You

The August of our irritability. (E. Marrero)

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 24 August 2017 — August is the cruelest month, the poet T.S. Eliot would have written had he been born in Cuba. Because by the end of July, and before the beginning of September, everything becomes much more complicated. To the high temperatures are added the massive vacations of thousands of students and state employees, which make life move slowly, gluey, like a dense and hot liquid.

The telephones in the ministries ring and no one answers them, the functionaries are not at their posts and the secretaries take advantage of heatwave to spend more time painting their nails. Everyone justifies it with summer, everyone puts the blame on this month, as if it were a virus whose only treatment is to wait for it to pass.

Irritability is everywhere. People whine in the long lines, utter an insult at the first opportunity and curse the weather, this lethargy that barely lets them think. September becomes the goal, the longed for month.

However, when August is overcome daily life continues to drag along. Be it the heat, the rain, a hurricane or a political demonstration, in Cuba there is always an excuse for apathy and idleness.

Republican Era Cuba, Patrimony Of The Ruling Party

Cuba’s ruling party appropriates the cultural images of Republican era Cuba. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 24 August 2017 — The gallery near the garden displays the faces of dozens of celebrities who stayed at the Havana’s Hotel Nacional. In one corner we see mobster Meyer Lansky, in another the sensual legs of ballerina Josephine Baker and the broad torso of actor Johnny Weissmüller. All belong to that “cocktail of the past” that gives the foreigners who come to visit an ecstatic rush.

The ruling party has converted the Republican era into its exclusive patrimony. It brings economic benefits to buildings constructed under capitalism, makes the places that served the nightlife of that era profitable, and appropriates the cultural scene of “mediatized Cuba,” as the history books call it.

The first half of the twentieth century has become a commodity, a product sold in tourist packages, souvenirs and through repetitive “canned” music, which appeals to those who want a shot of nostalgia; but it can also spark disgust when the private sector takes advantage of this scenography with its odor of mothballs.

Most of the images disseminated by the Ministry of Tourism exploit the symbolism of the Island during the first half of the 20th century

Cuba’s first vice president Miguel Díaz-Canel expressed his annoyance in a video filmed last February, for what he considers the “eulogy to the Batista era” promoted by many restaurants and cafes through a décor of photos from the era of the Republic. However, in his speech the official conveniently avoided mentioning the use the state itself makes of marketing that country that no longer exists.

Most of the images disseminated by the Ministry of Tourism exploit the symbolism of the island during the first half of the twentieth century, showing the Floridita restaurant/bar, the Bodeguita del Medio or the Tropicana cabaret. The senior officials of Gaviota and other hotel groups collect dollars in exchange for visually exploiting years that they themselves contributed to destroying.

Like all totalitarianism, the Cuban system seeks to control information and silence; the press and rumors; the past and present. Now, it has ended up closing the circle around the memories of Republican Cuba. Only power has the right to evoke that moment and, of course, it does it in its own way.

Parliamentary Karaoke

Cuban members of the National Assembly of People’s Power lodge in the Hotel Tulipán during their regular sessions (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Generation y, Yoani Sanchez, 14 July 2017 — Wednesday night. The neighborhood of Nuevo Vedado is sliding into the darkness. Catchy music resonates in the Hotel Tulipán where parliamentarians are staying during the current regular session. They dance, drink under the sparkling lights of the disco ball and sing karaoke. They add their voices to a programmed score, the exercise they know how to do best.

With only two sessions a year, the Cuban legislative body gathers to stuff the population full of dates, figures, promises to keep, and critiques of the mismanagement of bureaucrats and administrators. A monotonous clamor, where every speaker tries to show themselves more “revolutionary” than the last, launching proposals with an exhausting generality or a frightening lack of vision.

Those assembled for this eighth legislature, like their colleagues before them, have as little ability to make decisions as does any ordinary Cuban waiting at the bus stop. They can raise their voice and “talk until they’re blue in the face,” and enumerate the inefficiencies that limit development in their respective districts, but from there to concrete solutions is a long stretch.

On this occasion, the National Assembly has turned its back on pressures that, from different sectors, demand new legislation regarding the electoral system, audiovisual productions, management of the press, same sex marriage and religious freedoms, among others. With so many urgent issues, the deputies have only managed to draft the “Terrestrial Waters Bill.”

Does this mean that they need to meet more often to fix the country’s enormous problems? The question is not only one of the frequency or intensity in the exercise of their functions, but also one of freedom and power. A parliament is not a park bench where you go to find catharsis, nor a showcase to demonstrate ideological fidelity. It should represent the diversity of a society, propose solutions and turn them into laws. Without this, it is just a boring social chinwag.

The parliamentarians will arrive on Friday, the final day of their regular session, in front of the microphones in the Palace of Conventions with the same meekness that they approached the karaoke party to repeat previously scripted choruses. They are going to sing to music chosen by others, move their lips to that voice of real power that emerges from their throats.

The Impossible Letter

“You will write a letter addressed to Fidel Castro thanking him for free education,” the center’s educator told the students. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 29 June 2017 — “Today we are going to practice writing a letter,” announced the fourth grade teacher at a school in the Plaza of the Revolution district in mid-June. Immediately, Lucia, age 9, thought about writing a letter to her grandmother telling her about her latest acrobatics on skates, but the recipient had already been decided. “You are going to write a letter addressed to Fidel Castro thanking him for a free education,” declared the educator.

The girl froze. It never would have occurred to her to address a letter to a dead person, nor to anyone who wasn’t a friend or a member of her family. She scribbled the date on the top of the page and then stopped, with the pencil suspended in the air, not knowing what to do. “Lucia, you have to thank him for building schools and teaching Cuban children to read,” ordered the teacher.

The student remained paralyzed. “Come on, it is very likely that on the test they will ask you to write a letter to the Comandante and you have to practice.” The pencil didn’t move a fraction of an inch. “Look, I’m going to dictate some sentences to you and then you can continue on your own,” the teacher said, her tone increasingly irritable. “Fidel, without you I would have no shoes and no books and I would be illiterate,” she dictated. But the girl didn’t make a single mark.

When she got home the sheet of paper still had only the day and the month in one corner. So it was her mother’s turn to insist, “Think that you are writing another person and then later put ‘His’ name on it,” she proposed as a trick to get around the problem. Lucia imagined she was telling her grandmother about the games in the park, and thanking her for her affections and then signed it, squeezing in her name next to a drawing of a flower.

Last week the final exam included the request to write a letter. But this time it was addressed to the teacher and had to respond to the question, “What do you do to help your mom with the housework?” The girl stopped for several minutes with the pencil suspended over the paper without knowing what to do. No one came to dictate the sentences.

* This story is not literature, but absolute reality. The student’s name has been changed to avoid retaliation.

These Are Good Times For The ‘Weekly Packet’

A Cuban accessing the Weekly Packet’ from his laptop at home. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, generation, Yoani Sanchez, 27 June 2017 — Official propaganda has been euphoric since Donald Trump spoke at the Manuel Artime Theater in Miami. The government discourse rages with an intensity that hasn’t been seen since the campaign for ‘The Cuban Five’, the spies serving sentences in the United States. Faced with this saturation of slogans, many opt to take refuge in the ‘Weekly Packet.’

The Cuban Government seems to be advised by its worst enemies in terms of content dissemination, in view of the excess of ideology and ephemeris of the national media. The result is the galloping loss of viewers who opt for the informal networks of distribution of audiovisuals, series and films.

Each line of the incendiary political tirades published in the written press equals more than one los reader, tired of so much rhetoric. It is easy to detect through the comments on the street how the ‘rating’ of the media controlled by the Communist Party is collapsing these days, especially among the youngest.

In the past, television viewers tired of so much empty talk had to watch anyway, in the absence of other options, but now Cubans live in the age of USB memory and external hard drives.

Now, while the national media rant against the United States president’s new policy toward Cuba, the informal market is awash in entertainment material that has nothing to do with politics.

A bad quality copy of The Mummy starring Tom Cruise, or Wonder Woman featuring Patty Jenkins, along with the eighth installment of Fast and Furious, grab the attention of the fans of the Weekly Packet, and offer nothing but a headache for the government propagandists who don’t know how to attract that lost audience.

It is significant that science fiction, fantasy and car racing triumph where politics loses ground. Cubans escape reality through fiction, they evade propaganda by choosing programming far removed from ideology.

Economic Crime, the Pitfall in the Path

The question “do you have papers for those sacks?” is among the most repeated by the police to detect the “illegal” origin of a commodity.

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 22 May 2017 — The saleswoman described her merchandise in a murmur: loggerhead turtle steaks, beef and shrimp. The man salivated, but replied that he could not buy any of those products, the most persecuted in the informal market. Every opponent knows that the authorities would want to try him for an “economic crime,” and perhaps that saleswoman was just the bait.

The techniques used by an authoritarian government to control citizens can be as varied as the fertile imagination of the repressors. Some are designed in air-conditioned offices using studied methodologies, while others arise on the fly, from seemingly fortuitous situations.

Are the economic constraints that we live under a calculated scenario to keep Cubans locked in a cycle of survival? Do so many prohibitions seek to leave us civically paralyzed, feeling ourselves guilty and with one foot in a prison cell?

Beyond the conspiracy theories, officialdom has managed the informal market as trap for the nonconforming, a framework for gathering information about the deep Cuba, an element of blackmail against its citizens and a lure to hunt down political opponents.

The Plaza of the Revolution has turned its bad economic management into another way of keeping society in its fist. It knows that families will do everything possible to put food on the table and will turn to the underground networks to buy everything from their children’s shoes to the dollars that at the official currency exchanges are taxed at 10%.

In many cases it is just about waiting, like the spider who knows that sooner or later the little insect will fall into its sticky threads. State Security only has to wait for a dissident to buy coffee “under the table” or to dare to have the bathroom retiled by an unlicensed tile setter.

Although it is a practice that has been engaged in for many years, in recent months there has been an increased tendency to accuse activists of alleged economic infractions. They are charged with crimes that ordinary Cubans commit every day under the patronizing eyes of the police and with the complicity of officials or state administrators. However, in the case of an opponent, the law has the capacity to be narrower, more rigid and more strictly observed.

In all international forums, Raúl Castro’s government boasts of not having political prisoners and it supports this argument by severely, but politically selectively, criminalizing such trivial matters as keeping four sacks of cement or a few gallons of fuel at home, without being able to show the papers that prove they were purchased in state stores.

Journalist Henry Constantin is accused of “usurpation of legal capacity” for working as a reporter in an independent publication, but dozens of ex-military are appointed managers of tourist facilities without ever having studied hotel management or business management. None of them have been reprimanded for serving in a position for which they are not formally qualified.

Karina Gálvez, a member of the Coexistence Studies Center, is being prosecuted for alleged “tax evasion” during the purchase of her home. However, before the new tax imposed on real estate transactions came into force, thousands of Cubans thronged the notaries to complete their paperwork under the previous tax laws, far removed from the real estate market rates. Not one was sanctioned.

Eliécer Ávila, leader of the Somos+ Movement, had his home broken into in a police raid and is charged with the offense of “illicit economic activity.” His “crime”: possessing a laptop, rewritable discs and several disposable razors. Unlike those thriving artists who import the latest iMac from the market or “Daddy’s kids” – children of the regime’s leaders – who have a satellite dish to watch Miami television, the activist committed the offense of saying he wants to help change his country.

The lesson is that no matter what degree of economic illegality you commit, keep your mouth shut and don’t criticize the government. It is not the same to buy beef in the informal market when you pretend ideological fealty to the regime, than it is to do the same when you belong to an opposition movement.

The black bag can become a wall, a noose, a hidden trap for those who do not applaud.