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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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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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.

Are We Facing A New Black Spring In Cuba?

Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara will be tried for insult against the national symbols for trying to take away from the Government its monopoly on the Cuban the. (Facebook)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 11 March 2020 — Seventeen years ago, while the world was focused on watching the invasion of Iraq, the Cuban regime took advantage of the distraction to strike the repressive coup that came to be called the Black Spring. This March, as the international media dedicates its headlines to the coronavirus, the Plaza of the Revolution is tightening the screws of control. The most visible face of these new raids is the artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, who has been imprisoned since Sunday March 1st for two alleged crimes, one of insult against the national symbols and the other of property damage.

Otero Alcántara creates a type of irreverent and social art that annoys the officialdom. The protest for the elimination of the bust of a communist leader to inaugurate a luxurious hotel in its place, also recalls in one of its installations the cache of weapons that Havana tried to pass through the Panama Canal bound for North Korea. A resident of San Isidro, one of the poorest areas of the Cuban capital, this artist born in 1987 has become the stone in the shoe of the stagnant Cuban Government.

The discomfort caused by Otero Alcántara among the island’s nomenklatura has several causes. He comes from a poor family, is mixed race and was born within the Revolutionary process. The authorities find it disturbing that, after having received a ‘free education and healthcare,’ as the official propaganda wearily repeats, he chooses not to applaud but to question.

To make matters worse, with his art he disassembles and desacralizes power by speaking to them on familiar and personal terms. They also reject his universal gaze, his successful use of new technologies, which have helped him to disseminate his actions, and his social commitment that places him in the uncomfortable category of artivist.

However, what Castroism is particularly bothered by is the crosscutting nature of Otero Alcántara, who has successfully included in his works the LGBTI agenda, the defense of animals, urban music, alternative literature, dissident postulates, the relationship between Cuba and the United States, the pains of exile, the rescue — beyond ideology — of national symbols, and criticism of Fidel Castro’s personal excesses. Irony, sarcasm and questioning mark his work with a freshness and spontaneity that many of those other creators – the ‘official’ ones from the gallery and catalog – have given up, preferring not to inconvenience power but rather to dedicate themselves to selling their art without getting into trouble.

For using the Cuban flag in several of his installations and performances, Otero Alcántara will be tried in a context in which police citations against activists are increasing, are arbitrary arrests and the violation of independent journalists’ freedom of movement. Probably in its heated offices the Communist Party is planning to make this trial an exemplary action that will permeate the whole of society, spurred on by the shortages, the inefficiency of the system and the dysfunctionality of the institutions. In response to the lack of bread, fear.

As in March 2003, the Cuban regime hopes to take advantage of global distraction to deal a further blow to citizen liberties. The Black Spring returns, but it remains to be seen how we are going to react to it now.

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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.

The Cage is Deteriorating

Right now, in this city and in this country, there are thousands of families who put their children to bed without knowing if there will be a tomorrow. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 4 February 2020 — I was born and spent part of my childhood in a tenement in Centro Habana. I remember those nights of going to bed and shaking out of my sheets the dust that fell from the deteriorated ceilings. I also remember the care I took when climbing the stairs because a piece of the wall threatened to break loose, the sticks used to prop up some areas, and the permanent small of dampness and sewage leaking from the pipes in poor condition.

The uncertainty generated by having lived in these circumstances remains for a lifetime. It is a tremor you feel while you sleep; one eye open that never closes because plaster from the wall can end up on your pillow and, also, a gratefulness when the day dawns and you are still breathing. Right now, in this city and in this country, there are thousands of families who put their children to bed without knowing if there will be a tomorrow, because a girder can give way, a ceiling can collapse or a beam can fall down.

To those who like to separate politics from everyday life, as if what happens in a “palace” does not affect every aspect of a society, we must remind you that many of these buildings would have had a very different fate if, decades ago, their inhabitants had been allowed to appeal to more than the official channels to solve the problems they faced every day.

But like a strict father, the Cuban state wanted to possess everything and secure everything. The result: half a century of buildings that were deteriorating and being destroyed without a contractor, a cooperative or a private company being allowed to stop the debacle or build new buildings. By the time they came to open a few cracks in that monopoly, it was already late and — to top it all — the small openings in the private sector are still weighed down by a lack of autonomy, excessive bureaucracy and an official omnipresence that does not yield.

All that, because the “great controlling father” that is the Plaza of the Revolution needed to make us believe that not only did it provide us our birdseed through the rationed market, and other distributions through political privileges and ideological meritocracy, but it also gave us the roof: a rough cage that is falling to pieces.

See also:
Condemned to Live Among the Ruins
Havana is Collapsing – A Photo Essay: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

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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 Cuban Government Updates Its Blacklist

The list of prohibited pages updated this week, also includes some  that have been censored for some time including the daily 14ymedio [Intro Text: For the naive, for the uninformed, for those new to social networks, for those who still believe that the media war against Cuba is a digital story, for those who believe everything they read on Facebook, listed here are the most reactionary sites. It is not surprising that among those are those you have “liked” and “followed,” rectifying this is wise. This is a message from Radio Progress, the station of #FamiliaCubana. If you know of others, send a message.]

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 20 January 2020 – All models that are authoritarian and closed to change have had their lists of prohibited readings, censored authors and banned texts. From the inquisition, through Nazism, to the strict Soviet censorship, these models of citizen control have needed to constrain the limits of human knowledge and, thereby, of the written word. In its six decades Castroism has not lacked its own blacklist, its catalog of the stigmatized and its punishments of whomever approaches certain titles banished from the pantheon of the trustworthy.

This has happened with literature, with authors such as Guillermo Cabrera Infante and Reinaldo Arenas; with musicians like Celia Cruz and Paquito de Rivera… and, of course, with independent media. This week, the list of digital sites that annoy the Cuban government has expanded again and now includes El ToqueBarrio PeriodismoLa Joven Cuba and even OnCuba. New additions to the glossary of the forbidden. Some radio stations and blogs are accompanied with a warning: “For the naive, for the uninformed, for those who still believe that the media war against Cuba is a digital story.”

It is an honor to be on that list of forbidden, but also the authorities display an infinite clumsiness by spreading a catalog of the media that should not be read. Nothing is as attractive as the forbidden.

Because to all authoritarians citizens are like naive children who must be told what to do, what to read, what to eat, how to think. A paternalistic and controlling model like Cuba’s cannot accept that individuals choose how they are informed. Accepting that reality would be like recognizing that the system failed, that the ‘New Man’ created in the laboratories of social alchemy, indoctrinated since childhood and forced to behave as a soldier or as a monk, now wants to decide what he reads, what he hears and what he sees .

The updated list of sites banned this week, also includes the list of what has been censored for some time, among them the daily 14ymedio that we produce as a group of colleagues from within Cuba. It is an honor to be on that list of forbidden, but also the authorities display an infinite clumsiness by spreading a catalog of the media that should not be read. Nothing is as attractive as the forbidden.

Now, readers have a detailed list of where they should look, by what channels they should be informed, what web addresses they should visit and what content they should be sure not to miss. Censorship is terrible and dangerous but also awkward. Forbidding ends up consecrating, harassing ends legitimizing, burning books at the stake or blocking digital pages ends up exalting them and making them more visible and visited. It has happened on many occasions throughout history and it is also happening with Castroism.

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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.