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.

The Simple Story Of Roof Sealant

Short circuits in ceiling lamps, leaks and stains are some of the consequences of poor placement of a sealing cover on the roof. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana 20 July 2017 — One day they came carrying rolls of roof paper to waterproof the roof of this concrete block where we live with more than a hundred families. Those state employees were deaf to the warnings. “We do not need coverage here,” some neighbors told them. “No apartment leaks when it rains,” said others. However, the installation continued its course without listening to the citizens, like all directions “from above.”

There was no way to convince the authorities that this multifamily building, built in the years of the Soviet subsidy, had other emergencies. Water pipes have collapsed over the years and the lightning rod has been inactive for decades. “What we have is a roof sealer and that is what we are going to install,” said the head of the team of workers who for several days toiled over our heads.

Shortly after, the cover began to breakdown in several places. The rainwater accumulated underneath and, as it could not evaporate in the sun, leaked into the houses. The residents on the top floors have suffered all kinds of problems as a result from that awkward decision. Short circuits in ceiling lamps, leaks and yellow stains that increasingly cover a larger area in the ceilings. What should have been a solution, has become a real headache.

Now the community is battling to remove the sealing sheets, but the authority to do so does not arrive at the same speed with which some bureaucrats ordered it to be installed. The most daring residents have ripped off the pieces above their own apartments, while the most cautious wait for official directions from above.

During the years the cover has remained in place, several areas of the roof have been filled with mold and have developed cracks due to moisture, a damage that, now, each affected resident must repair with the resources of their own pockets.

A few yards away, in the neighborhood of La Timba, several families have been demanding that they be given roof paper — at affordable prices — to repair their homes. With summer rains, their homes “get wetter inside than outside,” they say. Some have approached our concrete building to get what we obtained in the lottery of state inefficiency.

The history of this sealing or roof paper is just one of the thousands of absurdities that Cubans are forced to deal with every day. A sample of how the country’s resources are wasted on superfluous tasks designed to fill in the numbers or meet irrational goals while the real difficulties are avoided or hidden.

The useless roof covering has not only left significant damage in several apartments, but has further hurt the decision-making ability of a community, a group of neighbors that does not even have sufficient autonomy to remove the shreds of the mistake that remain on our roof.

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.

Fidel Castro In Humor And Oblivion

The man, who in life was the target of thousands of jokes about his death, has been dead for more than half a year without popular humor deigning to mention it. (EFE)

14ymedio, Generation Y, Havana, 3 July 2017 — For decades Cubans were bombarded by official propaganda filled with materials about Fidel Castro’s supposed genius. In these vindications he was not only a father, but also a strategist, visionary, pedagogue, farmer and cattle rancher, among other lofty characteristics and pursuits. However, that prototype of patriarch, scientist and messiah had some “soft spots.”

Over time, many of us came to understand that the Maximum Leader was not as outstanding as they wanted to make us believe. Counting against him, he had several capital defects: with a complete lack of any capacity for self-criticism, he never engaged in debate, and he was not given to irony or humor, the most difficult and elevated scales of the human intellect.

Despite all the ill-advised decisions he made, Castro died without saying “I’m sorry,” contrary to those who say “to err is human but to rectify is wisdom.” My generation waited in vain for his apology for the high schools in the countryside, and other sad educational experiments, just was we waited for a mea culpa for the victims of the Five Grey Years, the Military Units in Aid of Production (UMAP) or the Stalinist purges.

Nor was controversy the terrain of the Commander-in-Chief. He shunned diatribe and prepared himself with selected data and later spewed it out over unsuspecting foreign journalists and crowds gathered in the Plaza of the Revolution. He liked them to say: “What a well informed man!” When in reality he was only a ruler with access to information that was not allowed to his citizens.

Castro drowned, in long hours of discourse, what could have been sound political talk and a constructive discussion to improve the nation. We had to worship him or applaud him, never contradict him. He never ceded the spotlight, fearing perhaps that we would realize that “the king is naked” or that the guerrilla had “not the least idea” of what he was talking about.

All the times the late leader approached controversy he was caught short. When he exercised that egregious sport that is verbal fencing, he was beaten in the first act. His way of dealing with these defeats was to overwhelm the other with long speeches or to get his acolytes to destroy the reputation of his opponent. He was mediocre as a gladiator of the word.

Nor were jokes his forte. Although Castro was the target of thousands of humorous stories, at no time in his life did he demonstrate a gift for humor. In a country where there is always a parody waiting to break the surface, that corpulent character – dressed in olive green with his serious and admonitory phrases – was the constant butt of mockery.

His death has highlighted that lack of charming banter. The man, who in life was the target of thousands of jokes about this death and his presumed arrival in hell, has been dead for over half a year without popular humor deigning to mention him. Not even Pepito, the eternal child of our stories, has wanted to “portray” the deceased.

Sad is the fate of those who are not remembered in a single joke. Poor is the man who never said “I was wrong,” who never knew the pleasure of engaging in arguments with an adversary, and who couldn’t even manage to taste the grace of humor.

A Cuban Fight Against The Demons Of Machismo

All these stupid prejudices, which have hardly diminished on this Island, pave the shortest way to deprive us of women’s talents. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 1 July 2017 — A man looks over my shoulder because I talk about cables and circuits. He grimaces in disgust when he sees my clumsy nails cut short and is annoyed because I reject his “compliments,” which I should accept with pleasure and gratitude. He does not say it out loud, but to him I’m just a creature who should look “pretty,” care for his home and bear his children.

It is an exhausting battle. Every day, every hour, every minute, Cuban women – and so many women in other parts of the world – have to deal with this accumulation of nonsense. “You can’t, let your husband do it,” is one of the more pleasant phrases we hear from them, although I have found others who insist that “women should only talk when hens piss*,” a coarse way of saying that we should be seen and not heard.

A journalist asks me in front of the camera how I combine being a mother with the task of running a newspaper. Although I try to lead the conversation down a professional path, he insists on referring to my ovaries. A political policeman mocks me because my hair is tangled. Probably my texts bother him more, but he feels a special pleasure in “attacking” my femininity. He is wasting his time.

At the end of the day, I have had to evade a thousand and one attempts to force me into a mold. That box where we must be silent and endure; smile and bear it; laugh with grace at the machistas** and act flattered by their repartee. A twisted mechanism that results in society losing out on our cores and being left only with our shells.

All these stupid prejudices, which have hardly diminished on this Island, pave the shortest way to deprive ourselves of the talents that we possess, not only as women, but – mainly – as human beings.

Translator’s notes:
*This expression derives from the fact that chickens do not urinate (as we know it).
**Male chauvinists.