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.

‘Good Morning, Lenin!’

Raúl Castro watches the crowd parading before the political leaders in the Plaza of the Revolution (CC)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 2 May 2017 — The loudspeakers blared in the distance. Their echo filled the neighborhood where many took advantage of the Monday holiday to sleep until mid-morning, far from the May Day parade and its slogans in the Plaza of the Revolution. The screams into the microphone sneaked into that apathy, like an alien band with its instruments out of tune. On the Day of the Workers, officialdom took its tropical chauvinism for a stroll.

I woke up, like in the German movie “Goodbye, Lenin!” and had the feeling I’d leapt through time. But my journey did not carry me into a future of imprecise contours, but rather into the past. The words spoken by the Secretary General of the Cuban Workers Center took me back to a time of ideological bravado, years in which the Kremlin bear had our backs and Cuba sent guerrillas to the jungles of South America and cosmonauts to space.

Ulises Guilarte De Nacimiento’s address smelled like mothballs, and didn’t fit the times we are living in. In his angry phrases there was a nationalism as ridiculous as it is outdated, and in any case politically incorrect almost everywhere on the planet. He spoke of exploits that most of the population had never experienced and, to top it off, ignored the demands of Cuba’s working class. He spoke in the past tense, with the rhetorical twists and turns of agitators from the last century and the overacting of every good opportunist.

I thought of all the topics he failed to address, all the proletarian demands that no one mentioned because the event had more ideology than class-consciousness. Missing were any demands from labor, requests for greater union autonomy, complaints about serious violations of occupational safety and health throughout the country, and the vital demand for wages more in line with the high cost of living.

Instead, the government preferred to use the day for political purposes, repeating the structure of the podium, up there, and the workers down below. More than a thousand foreign trade unionists and activists were present as guests, able to see with their own eyes the “proletarian enthusiasm” displayed by Cubans, but the event was nothing more than a faded repeat of those that formerly took place in the extinct socialist camp.

When the Berlin Wall fell, where were all those workers who had marched on the International Day of the Workers? When the USSR collapsed, what did they do to block those workers with medals on their chest who marched shouting slogans in those squares?

Invitation to the Readers of ’14ymedio’

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Miami, 14 April 2017 — In this blog I have experienced good readers and bad moments, shared stories and exchanged opinions. For almost three years you have also accompanied me in the adventure of running a digital newspaper. Together with the team of 14ymedio, you are part of a diverse family spread over several continents.

To talk about this time that we spent together and update you on the challenges that are to come, I want to invite you to the meeting: Cuba: at the distance of an embrace, this coming April 24 from 6 to 8 pm at the CubaOcho Museum and Performing Arts Center in Miami, to share anecdotes and ideas with you and two other reporters from 14ymedio.

I know that many who live far away or are busy and will not be able to come, but I don’t lost hope of continuing to have this kind of conversation in different cities and one day, why not, do the same thing in our newsroom in Havana: without repression or fear.

____________

Note:
The Address of the Cubaocho Museum & Performing Arts Center is 1465 SW 8th Street #106, Little Havana, Miami.

There will be a menu for those wishing to buy food and drink during the event. Special guests will be our friends from Project 305 of the New World Symphony of Miami, an initiative of which we are part and which seeks to collect audio and video clips to be used in an orchestral work that reflects the spirit of this city.

Raul Castro Squandered His Last Chance

US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart, Raul Castro, shook hands a year ago in Havana. (White House)

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 22 March 2017 — A year ago Cuba had a once in a lifetime opportunity. US President Barack Obama came to the island willing to turn the page on political confrontation. The gesture transcended the diplomatic situation, but Raul Castro – fearful of losing control – responded by putting the brakes on economic reforms and raising the levels of ideological discourse and repression.

Nations are not presented with opportunities every year, nor even every century. The decision to entrench itself and not to undertake political flexibilizations has been the Plaza of the Revolution’s most egotistical measure of recent times. Failure to know how to take advantage of the end of public belligerence with our neighbor to the north will bring this country lasting and unpredictable consequences.

These effects will not be suffered by the so-called “historic generation” – those at the forefront of the 1950s Revolution – now diminished by the rigors of biology and desertions. Rather than the generals in olive-green, the ones who will pay the price will be those who are still sleeping in their cradles or spinning their tops in the streets of the island. They don’t know it, but in the last twelve months a short-sighted octogenarian tricked them out of a share of their future.

The greatest waste has been not exploiting the international moment, the excitement about foreign investments, and the expectations everywhere in Cuba of taking the first steps towards democratic change without violence or chaos. It was not the job of the White House to encourage or provoke such transformations, but its good mood was a propitious setting for them to be less traumatic.

Instead, the white rose Obama extended to Castro in his historic speech in Havana’s Gran Teatro has faded, beset by hesitations and fears. Now, it is our job to explain to these Cubans of tomorrow why we were at a turning point in our history and we threw it away.