Thank You, Dear Pablo, for the Musical Legacy and Honesty

Pablo Milanés and his daughter Haydée sing a duet. (File, Archive)
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14ymedio, Yoani Sánchez, Generation Y, Havana, 22 November 2022 — Three decades ago, when the dial of any radio in Cuba was turned, it was very unlikely not to stumble across, on various stations, the warm voice of Pablo Milanés. It was the time when the Nueva Trova phenomenon was at its peak on the island, and the singer-songwriter was starring in concerts, interviews, television programs, and even musical themes in support of a political process to which he gave not only his best chords but also his artistic prestige. Shortly after, something broke forever in that relationship and this November 22, when the artist died at the age of 79 in Madrid, he had long since become an open critic of the Havana regime.

The death of Milanés closes a cultural stage on the island, although troubadours of his generation are still active, in the style of Silvio Rodríguez. He puts an end to an era because, unlike the latter, the author of hymns like Yolanda and Yo no te pido [I don’t ask you] had not only captivated his public musically but had also managed to gain a foothold in the hearts of the audience. His reputation as a good man, without hatred and in solidarity with young talents, earned him much appreciation on and off the Island. Added to this was his honesty, a personal quality that made him publicly acknowledge his distance from the ideological model that he had once helped to praise with his songs.

In July 2021, when thousands of Cubans took to the streets asking for a change in the system and a democratic opening, Milanés was emphatic in his support for the citizens and in his repudiation of the ruling party. “It is irresponsible and absurd to blame and repress a people thathave sacrificed and given everything for decades to sustain a regime that, in the end, imprisons them,” he lamented on his Facebook account. The artist took the opportunity to recall that he had been denouncing “the injustices and errors in the politics and government” of Cuba for a long time. Those words have been repeated and remembered in the last hours, after learning of his death, as a worthy epitaph to the composer of El breve espacio en que no estás [In the brief space where you are not].

Cuban officialdom has been cautious up to now in its condolences. A few brief farewell messages have come from the accounts of cultural institutions and some party leaders, but the brief and distant tone of these obituaries is noticeable. Milanés is not a comfortable dead man for a regime accustomed to extolling only those who applaud it with enthusiasm. The troubadour had become a difficult being for them, something that became clear during his last concert in Havana in June of this year. On that occasion, the authorities wanted to confine the artist in a small room which they were going to fill with acolytes from the Plaza of the Revolution, but the indignation of his followers forced them to change the script and move the presentation to the larger Ciudad Deportiva. And yes, indeed, the place was packed with political police to prevent the public from chanting “Freedom!” or other protest slogans.

During that show, many felt that they were probably attending, for the last time, that Milanés would sing in their country. With the greatness that characterized him, he did not want to get sentimental or emphasize a possible farewell, but his age and his fragile health levitated over the thousands of attendees.

Social networks have been filled with messages of respect and affection for everything that he gave to people throughout his life. Along with an impressive musical legacy, his main testament is summed up in having been consistent, a consistency that frightens official propaganda but that his audience recognizes. Thank you for the songs and for the sincerity, dear Pablo.

Editor’s Note: This text was originally published by Deutsche Welle‘s Latin America page.

COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

Cuban Independent Journalism in the Face of the Uncertain Future of Twitter

It is not known what will happen to Twitter but it is easy to predict what will happen to the thousands of Cuban users if its fluttering stops: we will be more gagged. (EFE)
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14ymedio, Yoani Sánchez, Generation Y, Havana, 20 November 2022 — The winds of uncertainty are blowing over Twitter: massive layoffs, an attempt to charge for account verification, and inflammatory statements by its new owner, Elon Musk, have fueled doubts about the future of this social network. In Cuba, questions are also growing about a tool that is vital for activism and independent journalism.

The crisis that the blue bird is going through comes at a very sensitive moment for the Island. There are only a few days left before a new Penal Code comes into force that will further restrict freedom of expression and the exercise of the press. By the time this new legal code is in force, the need to denounce repressive excesses will multiply and Twitter’s 280-character postings is the main channel for these demands to reach the largest number of international organizations, media outlets, and associations that watch over human rights.

To the extent that the social network seems to be about to become a thing of the past, the scope of these complaints will diminish and the visibility of civil society actors on the Island will also decrease. In addition, the insecurity surrounding the San Francisco company emboldens the Cuban regime, which in recent months has suffered several virtual defeats with the cancellation of its official accounts that spread ideological propaganda and attacks against dissidents.

Twitter has always been a thorn in the side of Castroism, which saw from the beginning the threat posed by a technology that offered citizens the ability to publish immediately, even without the need for internet, as it was used widely on the Island through mobile phone text-only messages. After a time of reticence against this social network, the regime ended up opening its own accounts assigned to institutions and party leaders, but it has never been able to hide its displeasure towards the tool. It has always had a dislike for this restless bird.

Now, spokesmen for the regime rush to pluck the wounded bird, boasting that they always foresaw its fall from grace. The instability that has gripped this microblogging service sounds like music to their authoritarian ears and they are already fantasizing about the company’s closing and the end of the loudspeaker that it has represented for the opposition and independent Cuban media. Unable to impose their narrative online, they are anxiously waiting for the voices of Cuban citizens to stop being heard.

Twitter has a great responsibility towards those of us who live on this Island. For us, to keep “twittering” about our reality is not a matter of trends, entertainment, puerile conversations or the desire to kill boredom. A tweet can make the difference between being on one side or the other of prison bars, it is capable of stopping a repressive act, and revealing the coercive practices of the political police. In our case, it is not a channel to display our morning cup of coffee or our feet sunbathing in front of a pool, but a very important layer of the protective shield that we need so much.

It is not known what will happen to Twitter, but it is easy to predict what will happen to the thousands of Cuban users of that network if its fluttering stops: we will be more gagged and surrounded by greater dangers.

COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

Cubans Have Lost Their Smiles

That laughter on the lips or the cackles set off by anything at all have disappeared from Cuban streets. (14ymedio)
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14ymedio, Yoani Sánchez, Havana, 21 October 2022 — We are a dozen people waiting in line. The woman in front of me has her lips pursed as if she is avoiding saying anything. The young man in flip-flops and jeans turns his head from side to side from time to time, while next to him a teenager does not take her eyes off her phone and frowns. The man at the end of the line has released some insults for the delay and even the store’s guard can’t stop complaining. No one smiles, no face even hints at a gesture of joy or complacency.

For years I had to explain to my foreign students who came to learn Spanish on the island that the laughter of Cubans should not be interpreted as synonymous with happiness. “Even at funerals, and despite the sadness of the death of someone close, people will make their jokes and can burst out laughing,” I described. But the stereotype that people in this country felt content and lucky to live under the prevailing political system was as difficult to eradicate as lice in elementary school classrooms.

So, I drew on more data. I spoke to them about the repression, the domestic conflicts fueled by the housing deficit, the high divorce rate, the drama of the suicides about which the ruling party jealously guards the numbers, and the dream most shared by Cubans, that of emigrating to any other place in order to leave this Island. However, my explanations that a thousand and one dramas could hide behind those smiles tourists saw in the streets did not achieve any effect. The cliché of national contentment was stronger than any argument or statistic.

But even the most widespread and enduring clichés may one day run into the reality that proves them false. That laughter on the lips or the cackles set off by anything at all have disappeared from Cuban streets. The faces of sorrow and annoyance are seen on all sides and, instead of those jocular and hilarious phrases of yesteryear, now emerge complaints, insults and offenses. It gives the impression that a conflict is always about to break out with fists or that anyone might jump down another’s throat at the slightest difference of opinion or friction.

A French friend who worked in Cuba for a foreign firm for many years returned a few days ago after more than five years in Europe. “What has happened to the people?” he asked me. “No one laughs,” he added when he saw that I didn’t understand him. He concluded with a phrase that made me realize that we all have long, serious faces 24 hours a day: “All the faces I see are sad, even the children don’t smile.” We don’t even use that mask that we put on so many times to exorcise pain or dissatisfaction. We have stopped even wanting to pretend that we are happy.

After that conversation I walked down the Avenida de los Presidentes in El Vedado, turned onto Calle 23, continued to L, approached Infanta and quickened my pace towards Belascoaín. Not a single laugh the entire way.

COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

Voices in Cuba: ‘Turn on the Power!’

Long before Hurricane Ian struck, power outages in Cuba were frequent. (14ymedio)
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14ymedio, Yoani Sánchez, Generation Y, Havana, 30 September 2022 — Yesterday, Thursday, in the afternoon and at night, several popular protests shook Havana with the cries of “Turn on the power!” and “Freedom!” There are still large areas without electricity, as is the case in our neighborhood, which will soon mark 72 hours without electricity.

Web browsing from mobile phones was cut off last night to prevent us from seeing the images of the demonstrations and right now internet access remains very precarious.

The food shortage situation is very complicated and the winds of Hurricane Ian have fueled inflation, especially in the prices of basic products such as bread, eggs and vegetables.

Social unrest, acid criticism of the dismal performance of state entities and the demand for change have also increased significantly. People can’t take it anymore. Hopefully this outrage translates into a liberation movement and not more people fleeing the Island, as sadly has happened in similar cases.

COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

A Monday of Anguish in Havana

We can’t even say that it was dawn in the city because the horizon was a dark smudge this morning. (14ymedio)
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14ymedio, Yoani Sánchez, Havana, 8 August 2022 — My sore throat woke me up. I went to the bathroom to gargle and looked out the window. An eerie glow was visible in the sky to the east. The fire at the Matanzas Supertanker Terminal, which started last Friday, is not something that can only be seen on television screens or through social networks. It is also here, in Havana, where a dark cloud, with the residue of the combustion, covers the city while people search for answers they cannot find.

My dog ​​Chiqui raises her snout and hides her tail between her paws before hiding under the sofa. My mother calls me because she has to go outside and she doesn’t know what precautions to take. I tell her to wear a mask and to avoid at all costs getting wet in the rain if there is a downpour. In the background the official television report sounds, showing party leaders in a meeting in an air-conditioned room and some announcers who avoid precise words at all costs. “Explosion” or “alarm” is not said, nor are the words “danger” or “threat” pronounced.

They are two parallel realities. While in the microphones there is talk of overcoming and resisting, in my neighborhood people raise their eyes and fear. We can’t even say that it was dawn in the city because the horizon was a dark smudge this morning. My eyes burn and when a ray of sunlight manages to cross the clouds, a strange, almost ghostly golden line is projected on the floor of the balcony. My head throbs and I try to drink as much water as I can; yes, from that we have collected before the start of the fire, because the rains may have contaminated the reserves between Saturday and today.

I review my list of the most fragile people I know in this situation. The old lady on the corner who had to stand in line at dawn to buy bread, the friend who has a small plot of vegetables and fears that so much waste in the air will end up on that food, and if he can’t sell it he won’t have the money to support his family, and the mother with a son in the Military Service whose heart is in suspense because her boy could be sent to the disaster area, even if he lacks the experience and age to face the monster of fire.

I never believed that this system’s capacity for disaster could reach such a point, that mismanagement, violation of security protocols, laziness and voluntarism would take us to these limits. As an optimist by nature, I thought that even the official bungling had a limit or a circumscribed margin of effect, that they could not harm so many people in such a short time. I was wrong. This system is lethal. Its ineptitude kills and kills many. The sky of my city today is screaming those truths.

COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

The Word of the Year and the Difficult Task of Naming a Moment

A burial in Pinar del Rio province in Cuba. (Ronald Suárez/Facebook)
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14ymedio, Yoani Sanchéz, Generation Y, 23 December 2021 — The Fundación del Español Urgente (Foundation of Emerging Spanish — Fundéu) has already published its twelve candidates to compete for 2021’s scepter of the word. The competition is tough because this year has elicited deep emotions in millions of people who speak this beautiful language and because for twelve months the social debate has ignited around words that define scientific findings, political conflicts and economic hardships. The selection could leave a trail of dissatisfaction among Spanish speakers, a plural chorus that extends beyond the twenty nations that have Castilian as their official language.

Vaccine, cryptocurrency, shortage, variant, metaverse and Taliban are among the terms in dispute for the crown that the Fundéu has awarded since 2013. However, although all of them have been written, disseminated and spoken countless times, I consider that it has been the act of saying goodbye – mentally and physically – that we have had to perform the most in this very tough year that is ending. The expression “adiós” has marked much of our days, redefined our path and forced us to rethink the priorities of our existence.

We said “adiós” to the thousands of deaths that the second and third waves of the pandemic brought us, when we had believed that the worst was over. We also appealed to that interjection when we understood that the way we had experienced social contact, interaction with others and professional life was no longer going to return, we had to construct other ways. We had to use that sharp word again when we realized that the pandemic was not something fleeting but the new state in which we would live for a long time. This year we said “adiós” at every step.

But every time we shake our hands or our heads to close a chapter or to say goodbye to a deceased, we also said “hello” or “welcome,” because 2021 forced us to wake up every morning and give thanks that our lungs were still working, to jump like children before the negative result of an antigen test, to hug each other only with the tip of the elbow and still feel as if it had been with the whole body, to put away our bathing suits because the beaches were closed and later to not hang the garlands because Christmas could not be celebrated either. It led us to sweep away the superfluous and keep the essentials.

After having survived all of this, we get a half smile on remembering that in 2014 Fundéu selected the word “selfie,” so narcissistic and carefree; or that in 2019 it was the turn of the cute “emojis.” The tongue then carried a distant and festive unconcern because, of course, we did not know what was on its way to us with the coronavirus pandemic.

On December 29, the foundation promoted by the EFE Agency and the Royal Spanish Academy will announce the word of this year, but many of us already know it. It is the two short syllables that we have repeated all this time: adiós.


This text was originally  published on  the Deutsche Welle website for Latin America.

COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

Masks Are Not Gags

The journalist Mónica Baró, winner of an award from the Gabo Foundation, is one of the journalists who has suffered an interrogation and a fine.

14ymedio, Yoani Sánchez, Generation Y, 22 April 2020 — While the coronavirus rages in Latin America, another enemy – not as tiny – is also gaining ground. Authoritarianism takes advantage of the health emergency and the fear of citizens to cut freedoms, crush rights and impose tight control over daily life. In a few weeks we have regressed many years and the steps backward could accelerate in the coming days.

Along with the necessary calls for social confinement, restrictions on mobility and the closing of borders, some governments have gone further and have launched a campaign against the press and freedom of expression. Between one and another series of preventive measures they want to impose a bitter censorship and curtail of civic rights. Along with the quarantine and the masks, punishments and gags spread everywhere.

We have seen everything. From leaders and rulers who incite xenophobic hatreds and use the pandemic politically, to others who promote mass mobilizations despite the risk and minimize scientific recommendations. While many politicians insist they are combating dangerous hoaxes against health, they actually plunge the knife in an attempt to destroy their critics, who question their management and the media that challenges them.

In times of epidemic, independent reporters in Cuba receive more police citations than usual, and Internet users who report official errors are threatened with exemplary punishment. A shower of interrogations and fines has fallen on the press not controlled by the Communist Party and it is expected that these retaliations will increase as the number of cases positive Covid-19 also increase.

Along with interrogations by the political police, confiscations of work supplies and monetary penalties, the new wave of repression includes demonization campaigns against the private media, presenting these reporters as almost another type of coronavirus. Authorities seem especially interested in cutting off any narrative about the harsh reality of long lines, shortages, and economic uncertainty that have flared in recent days.

The official attacks are also characterized by amnesia. When, a few weeks ago social networks were filled with exhortations for classes to be canceled and borders closed to tourism, government spokespeople branded citizen proposals as manipulations coming from abroad. Days later, the Plaza of the Revolution imposed a package of measures very similar to the one it repudiated.

The delay of those weeks, in which official tourist campaigns continued promoting the Island as “a safe destination” and even hinted that the high temperatures of the Caribbean were an additional protection against contagion, was widely denounced in the independent media. The cost in lives of that delay is something we will never know with certainty.

Now, intolerance has escalated a step further, and a young journalist was summoned by police last week and given a hefty fine. Mónica Baró, winner of the Gabo Prize in the Text 2019 category, received threats for her posts on Facebook. According to the repressors, her crime is having disseminated “information contrary to the social interest, morality, good customs and integrity of people”, according to the draconian Decree Law 370 that regulates the distribution of content.

Sheltered through the coronavirus, other dangerous pathogens thrive, ones that – wearing a necktie or military epaulets – want to leave society without “information defenses.”


This text was originally published by Deustche Welle’s Latin America page.

COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

Cuban Doctors Risk Their Lives To Escape The Shortages

Cuban doctors who traveled to Lombardy in northern Italy displayed flags of both countries and a large photograph of Fidel Castro. (PresidenciaCuba)

14ymedio, Yoani Sánchez, Generation Y, Havana, 1 April 2020 — The applause was felt everywhere. This Sunday at nine o’clock in the evening, an ovation crossed Cuba, in tribute to the health personnel who are on the front line of confrontation with Covid-19. As in other countries affected by the pandemic, people have wanted to acknowledge the sacrifice of doctors, who in Cuba must not only deal with the risk of becoming infected, but also with the material deterioration of the hospitals and low wages.

For decades, the Cuban health system has been highly praised by official propaganda and has become almost a myth at an international level. The fact that healthcare is free of cost to all and available to all is presented as one of the great “achievements of the Revolution,” and, for many, the health of the Island is a benchmark of how the sector should be managed. However, discontent grows among Cubans about the dire state of the hospitals, where the patients themselves must bring everything from sheets to food.

As the coronavirus spreads throughout the country – where according to official figures there are already 170 people who have tested positive for the disease and six who have died— our entire health network is being tested. In support of the Cuban doctors, they have been trained in contingency and working with few resources, so they have a special capacity to deal with the shortage of supplies that is becoming even more acute right now. Many of them are “graduates” in the harsh school of chronic crisis.

This ability to do a lot with little is one of the strengths that Cuban doctors have exhibited in recent days to countries where the coronavirus is taking hundreds or thousands of lives. More than 40 nations have requested the support of the island’s health professionals, as reported by the Ministry of Public Health. A necessary request and, without a doubt, a wise decision, because they will receive doctors experienced in emergency situations.

However, it must be said that the fine print of these agreements between the Cuban Government and the countries that call for health personnel almost never makes headlines anywhere. Those doctors will provide their services in semi-slavery conditions because, of the money the hosts pay, only a tiny part will end up in their pockets.

Our self-sacrificing doctors will work, sweat, and risk their lives, but the biggest beneficiary will be a government that doesn’t show transparency about what is done with every centavo earned from medical missions. Although official voices repeat that this money is invested in improving national health facilities and services, there is no clear record and the same could go to save lives rather than to sustain the repression.

On the other hand, although the desire to heal is the main motivation of their work, these doctors will have to accept that their work is publicly dressed up in the robes of ideology. It is enough to see the images of the Cuban doctors before leaving for Italy, posing next to a portrait of Fidel Castro, to understand that their trip is also being used by the Plaza of the Revolution as a marketing operation. The authorities want to extract ideological revenue from the pandemic and spread the idea that an authoritarian model cuts freedoms but saves lives. In other words, in these regimes, it is not possible to behave oneself as a citizen, but rather as an eternal patient.

The official discourse is disrupted when one of those doctors decides not to return to the Island. From the smiling photo and the epithet “hero of the country” they will come to suffer the stigma of being considered a “deserter.” It is enough that a doctor fails to return from a mission for them to be forbidden to enter Island to be reunited with their family for eight long years and, in addition, they will lose the salary in national currency that they have already earned, which had been accumulating in a bank account in Cuba.

So why do they go to these missions where they risk their lives and where they earn so little, many will wonder. The answer is complex but worth exploring. The humanitarian vocation is part of the motivations, but there is more: Getting out of the island prison is a respite in the midst of such a hard daily life. Despite being in an emergency zone, over there they will have access to many more services and products, so they will be able to bring merchandise to Cuba that will relieve their situation and that of their family.

A few years ago I met a doctor, epidemiologist, and university professor, who accepted a medical mission in Venezuela because it was the only possibility of obtaining the resources to repair the roof of her house. On this island we have the harsh contrasts of running into a neurosurgeon who is going to operate on a brain without having had breakfast, because his salary is not enough to have a glass of milk each day, and of a nephrologist who asks his patients to buy him a snack to cope with the workday.

Despite the fact that some years ago the salary of health professionals became the highest pay in all of Cuba, right now it is very difficult to find any of them who earn more than the equivalent of 70 dollars a month, and this in a country where a liter of vegetable oil costs over $2.50 and in state stores a liter of milk costs more than $1.50. Our doctors live, practically, in penury.

All this and much more influences why they get on a plane to provide their professional services outside the country, even if they risk their lives and even though they know that the Government is going to keep most of their income. They also do it because they love their profession and one day they swore to face illness and death, because they are magnificent human beings, like all the doctors on the planet, and not because they profess an ideology or because they are members of a certain party.

They, our doctors, are the true heroes of these days and not because of what the official press says. So tonight, when the clock strikes nine, I will clap wildly for them on my balcony. I will do so to acknowledge their effort, but it will not be an ovation for the system that has condemned them to wage poverty and political docility. Come clap your hands for our white-coat heroes.


This text was originally published by Deustche Welle’s Latin America page.

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Cuban News and False Normality

People in Cuba continue to crowd together without a sufficient distance between them. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 17 March 2020 — Every day I have to make an effort to watch the official Cuban official. My work as a journalist obliges me to tune in to those news programs because in a country marked by vertical control of the news, there are data and statements that are only published on those television or radio stations. Although I always muster a special patience to sit before the screen, I must confess that these days the drink is getting much more bitter.

NTV, in the evening primetime hours, is broadcasting some dangerous hoaxes about the coronavirus, turning the pandemic into an ideological battle, using the calamity to compete politically, and denying the mistakes of the “fellow comrades” while minimizing or falsifying the successes of democratic countries before the advance of Covid-19. Thus, it disseminates statements from officials more concerned with appearing normal than with protecting the population. Everything Venezuela’s Maduro and Nicaragua’s Ortega do in the face of the pandemic is an example to follow, while Germany’s Merkel or France’s Macron seem to be literally sinking their countries, according to this crude news script.

The newscast speaking of the interior of Cuba tells us that everything is “tranquility and discipline” and in its reports and headlines chauvinism reaches unbearable heights with a mix of recklessness, arrogance, absolute lack of humility and folly. The responsibility for the damage this disease causes in an unsuspecting Cuba – where the borders have not yet closed, classes are not canceled, work days are not suspended, offices are not closed, and there is no strong call for people to stay at home – will fall on the official news media and its public “information.”


COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

Authoritarianism and Coronavirus, Two Evils That Come Together

Inside the hospitals it will be something else: an overexploited medical staff without union rights, dilapidated facilities and a chronic lack of medicines. (Radio Rebelde)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 12 March 2020 — Invisible and potentially mortal. This is the enemy that keeps the world in check. Cuba officially confirmed this Wednesday that three Italian tourists tested positive for coronavirus and it is expected that in the next few days the number of infections will increase and that the authorities will take measures of great social impact. An authoritarian system functions like a permanent barracks or as a field hospital, so it has some “advantages” in an epidemic compared to democracies.

The first “superiority” shown by these types of regimes in the face of any emergency is their ability to control information. That ability to dominate the data was deployed in China during the first weeks of the appearance of Sars-Coronavirus-2, during which the few who dared to reveal what was happening were practically branded as traitors. Such was the sad case of Dr. Li Wenliang, accused by the authorities of “spreading rumors” – which could mean a high prison term – and who ended up dying of the virus.

Among some, the fact that only this Wednesday positive cases have been confirmed on the Island and that it was clear that no Cuban volunteer working abroad has contracted the disease has raised alarms. Is the script to “put make up” on the problem – that is to try to hide it – also being applied here? A strategy that would yield – facing the world – that would be extremely dangerous if it failed to convey to the population the real magnitude of the problem.

If Cuban authorities use the same policy that has been followed for years with regards to the number of people infected or killed by dengue fever is put into practice, the true incidence of Covid-19 in Cuba will never be known.

Accustomed to behaving like generals towards their soldiers and not like public officials towards their citizens, Cuban leaders can implement absolutely invasive and coercive measures at the social level without the need to decree a state of emergency. They do not require special permits to remove potential infected persons from their homes by force, to lock up suspected cases in hospitals, or to cancel all mobility across the country at once. In this, they “beat” democratic models by a landslide.

With an extensive network of informants throughout the national territory, the Plaza of the Revolution only needs to include sneezing and fever among the acts that must be reported, so that this network of snitches is launched to hunt for possible infections. Now, those who report their neighbor for expressing an anti-government slogan or a criticism of the Communist Party will be rewarded, as will those who report that a neighbor “looks sick,” “coughs a little” or “has shut themselves up at home and does not want to open the door.”

Like all strict paternalism, in this situation there will be no shortage of intense propaganda. Those who succeed in overcoming the coronavirus will not do so because the treatment worked or the medical personnel tried hard, but because “the Revolution did not leave him defenseless.” For a few weeks the disease will take on the role of the eternal enemy of the North and each case will be presented as a patriotic and political battleground from which one must emerge unscathed in order, among other things, to demonstrate to ideological adversaries that Cubans live under the best of all possible models.

Official propaganda will also take the opportunity to present the Island’s Health system as infallible, accurate and highly developed. Something that will serve to please those outside our borders who continue to believe the myth of the high level of care of the Cuban hospital network and who will point to “the performance of little David” as an example to follow in their respective countries. Inside the hospitals it will be something else: an overexploited medical staff without union rights, dilapidated facilities and a chronic lack of medicines will star in the “coronavirus days.”

But, unlike in other places, the narrative of that other face will be prohibited and whoever tells it could be legally prosecuted for damaging the country. Freedom of expression and of the press will become as scarce as facemasks. Control over what patients, family and friends post on social media could also be tightened. A post on Facebook, an image posted on Twitter may become an act of treason in the coming days.

But where democracies surpass any authoritarianism when it comes to emergencies is in being able to count on citizen participation. As the most recent devastating earthquake that affected Mexico City demonstrated, when people gather together and work as a team, they can go where a State cannot. Some of this was verified in Havana after the tornado that affected several areas of the capital in January 2019: the first arrivals came carrying food and water and they were people without the responsibility, uniform or credential to do so.

If that support network is outlawed, as is often the case in an authoritarian regime that wants to control everything, including solidarity, confronting the coronavirus may not be as effective as it needs to be. Especially because if services and supplies are cut, help between neighbors and families will become vital. How will one watch over so many old people on this vulnerable and lonely Island? Can a government deal with all that?

It should be added that the excessive control of the State alone has made the Cuban economy an unproductive disaster. In the country, there are daily crowds to buy food and move from place to place, a risk factor in the spread pattern that the disease follows. To top it off, few families have the reserves to stay inside their homes for days and thus avoid contagion. The same authoritarian system that boasts of being ready to face the coronavirus has left citizens in the most fragile defenselessness. It is on this point where democracies can excel, without a doubt.


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