From Ferry Line to Internet Line

Key West-Havana Ferry, takein in 1951 (Miami History Archives and Research Center)

Key West-Havana Ferry, taken in 1951 (Miami History Archives and Research Center)

Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 7 May 2015 – Toward the other side of the sea, that point on the horizon that so many Cubans dream of, several of the curious were gazing yesterday as they sat along Havana’s Malecon. Hours earlier word begun to spread that the United States has authorized “certain specific licenses for passenger ferry service” to Cuba. The rumor was enough for many to play with the idea of how this country would change if it were connected by boat to the other shore. A thousand and one illusions have been unleashed in recent hours, although the four ferry companies authorized by the U.S. Department of the Treasury have yet to receive approval from the Cuban authorities.

However, the symbolic effect of this relaxation reaches dimensions that transcend the political gesture. We live on an island and this has given the sea, for us, the character of an insurmountable frontier, a wall that isolates us from the world. When a Cuban prepares to visit another country, we rarely use the verb “to travel,” but rather appeal to a more dramatic word, salir: which means to “go out” or “get out” or even “break away.” To escape our insularity, to get to the other side, we have to saltar: “leap over.” A catamaran from Florida arriving along our coast every day would break – at least metaphorically – this geographic isolation used, for the last half century, for ideological purposes.

People in the street, however, are waiting for more than allegories. Now hopes focus on trips by Cuban-Americans becoming cheaper with the new maritime connection. Many dream that the holds of these boats can also bring the resources for private enterprise, agriculture and domestic life. “The pieces I’m lacking for my Russian-made Lada car,” Cheo, an engineer turned taxi driver, dreamed yesterday. His brother bought some Soviet car parts in Miami but he can’t send them because “they weigh too much and it’s too expensive by air.”

In the afternoon, two men were arguing in a crowded bus about whether the Cuban government would authorize a ferry landing in Havana. “Not even crazy people are going to allow that, boy,” shouted the older one, continuing his argument with, “Do you really think they’re going to let a boat with an American flag dock here?” The younger one, however, turned the conversation to his interests, ”What we need them to do, in addition to a ferry line, is put in an Internet line.” And so he finished with an ironic laugh.

Cubans appear ready to make up for lost time. To fit into the world in every way possible. To convert the sea that for so long was a barrier into a path, a road, a connection.

A Flooded May Day in Havana

The sewers can barely deal with the mud from the storm (14ymedio)

The sewers can barely deal with the mud from the storm (14ymedio)

Yoani Sanchez, 1 May 2015 – The El Cerro neighborhood is mud and tears right now. One of Havana’s most populous municipalities is trying to recover from the surprise rains that left three dead in the city, more than 1,400 houses affected and 27 partial or total building collapses. Many families lost their most precious belonging and the whole city has that smell that is left after floods, a mixture of sewage, garbage and pain.

The main scene of the tragedy experienced in the Havana capital is indoors, in the homes where they couldn’t save even a chair, but the official press tries to minimize it because it happened a few hours before the “triumphant” First of May, which is meant to show the world “the Cuban people’s attachment to the socialist system.”

The drama of those still cleaning out the mud with own efforts, shoveling it from their living rooms and bedrooms, doesn’t fit with today’s “workers’ glory,” foreign guests, and even Nicolas Maduro’s trip to share the platform in the Plaza of the Revolution with those who live in houses well-protected from inclement weather. Meanwhile, a few yards from the place where they waved flags and chanted slogans this morning, those affected by Wednesday’s storm tried to recapture the rhythm of their lives. The high water mark, which reached nearly six feet in some areas, is still fresh on the facades and in memories.

They should have suspended a parade that has cost thousands of pesos needed to help the victims

There are countries where it costs a president his job if he doesn’t personally go to the scene of an accident or a natural disaster. The absence of government officials in an area affected by a storm, a volcano or an earthquake earns the enmity of the citizens in many places, and the condemnation of the international community. In Cuba, however, fanfare has been imposed as a strategy to divert attention from the problems. This May Day has been an example of how official propaganda privileges triumphalism and minimizes misery.

A lady was sitting on the corner of Amenidad and Infanta Streets this morning, looking at the sky. Her hands wet from bailing out the water from the downstairs apartment where she lives. “I’m just waiting for the parade to end,” she said in a loud voice to anyone who would listen, with that wave of courage that overcomes us when we no longer have anything to lose. “When that’s over, maybe they will remember us,” she reaffirmed with a certain illusion.

They didn’t organize any parties in this miserable place. Out of shame, they should have suspended a parade that has cost thousands of pesos needed to help the victims. A little political sanity would have been required… but, who can ask those who have lived as well-to-do bourgeoisie for 56 years to think like the proletariat?

The Curse of the Cursed

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Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 1 April 2015 – Imagine that after a flight of more than nine hours, you arrive at your destination but they don’t let you get off the plane. Your legs are numb from the journey, your relatives are waiting for you out there, your suitcases are full of gifts for friends… but an immigration official informs you that you will not be allowed to enter the country of your birth. You have to stay in your seat, tired and frustrated, while they clean the plane for the next passengers. In the time you wait for it to return to the airport from whence you came, you can’t stop asking yourself, “How could this happen to me in my own country?”

That nightmare, was just experienced by the artist Aldo (Maldito) Menendez – whose nickname means “cursed” – as he tried to visit Cuba to participate in the Cervantes Alternate Lives Festival of Camagüey (FIVAC). The Cuban consulate in Spain had already warned him that he was not welcome on the Island and had even stamped his passport with an authoritarian “annulled” on the so-called “empowerment” that Cuban emigrants need to enter their own country. But… the truly Maldito was not satisfied and wanted to experience firsthand whether they really wouldn’t let him cross the border.

Like any artist, Maldito is daring and irreverent. His works are provocative and even the title of his blog, Castor Jaboa, is an anagram* which, when we reorder its letters, delivers its message loud and clear. However, beyond his art, this young man who studied at the San Alejandro National Academy of Fine Arts in Havana, is a real cubanazo** who boasts the talent, mischievousness and the humor that so characterizes us. So how is it possible that, for political reasons, he is prevented from being in the place where he’s from, the site from which flows much of his art and his world of reference?

Maldito’s is not a new story, but that is no reason why we should get used to such abuse, nor cease to denounce it. After more than two years of immigration reform, its implementation has not eliminated the blackmail that Cuban emigrants are subjected to in order to enter the Island. The punishment of those who criticize the Cuban government from their residence abroad remains a denial of their right to return.

A few, protected by their power, decide who can once again walk these streets, embrace their friends, be in the house where they spent their childhood. And they do it from the arrogance of believing that they, with their ideology and their military uniforms, represent the essence of Cuba, when in realty they only manage to deform it, to restrict it… to kill it.

Translator’s notes:
*Castor Jaboa is an anagram for Abajo Castro — Down with Castro.
**A cubanazo is a boisterous, shamelessly stereotypical Cuban man (a woman would be a cubanaza) who dresses, walks, speaks and thinks in uniquely Cuban ways.

 

What remains after the tragedy

The location in the Alps where the remains of the Germanwing plane are strewn (Ministry of the Interior)

The location in the Alps where the remains of the Germanwing plane are strewn (Ministry of the Interior)

Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 30 March 2015 — There are clothes scattered across the mountains, open suitcases, children’s dolls that will never be played with again. Things that belonged to people who until recently were alive and of whom barely a memory is left, a trail of goods that will be sorted and conveyed to the families of the victims. The tragedy of Germanwings A320, crashed in the French Alps, makes me reflect, like many others, on the brief second that separates us from death. A suicidal leader, a madman at the helm, a war unleashed by others … a thousand and one ways to die that life brings us.

One evening in 1985 my family sat around the set table, waiting for Grandma. She never came, because two drunks in the middle of a brawl fatally wounded her in a nearby café. Her plate remained on the table. Cold, alone, with the spoon to its side and a glass of water making a wet round mark on the wood. Afterwards there were her shoes, the wallet where she treasured her money and a nutmeg. Her clothes hanging in the wardrobe along with some photos from her youth that we never got to ask her about where they’d been taken.

The things the dead leave us are sometimes more difficult to deal with than the memories themselves. What to do with that note they wrote before leaving home to remember to buy eggs, salt and a little oil? Their drawers, the sheets they slept on their last night, the cookies they liked so much? How to quiet the way the comb speaks, still with their hair, the Facebook account in which they recorded their last “like” or that red circle on the calendar that marked their birthday?

The things the dead leave us have their own voice. They remind us every time we look at them that in that fabric, wielding that pen, or looking into that mirror, until yesterday, had been someone who breathed and whom we loved.

The Day Peace Broke Out

Generation Y*, Yoani Sanchez, 25 March 2015 – “Peace broke out!” the old teacher was heard to say, on the day that Barack Obama and Raul Castro reported the reestablishment of relations between Cuba and the United States. The phrase captured the symbolism of a moment that had all the connotations of an armistice reached after a long war.

Three months after that December 17th, the soldiers of the finished contest don’t know whether to lay down their arms, offer them to the enemy, or reproach the Government for so many decades of a useless conflagration. Everyone experiences the ceasefire in his or her own way, but the indelible timestamp is already established in the history of the Island. Children born in recent weeks will study the conflict with our neighbor to the north in textbooks, not experience it every day as the center of ideological propaganda. That is a big difference. Even the stars-and-stripes flag has been flying over Havana lately, without the Revolutionary fire that made it burn on the pyre of some anti-imperialist act.

For millions of people in the world, this is a chapter that puts an end to the last vestige of the Cold War, but for Cubans it is a question still unresolved. Reality moves more slowly than the headlines triggered by an agreement between David and Goliath, because the effects of the new diplomatic mood have not yet been noticed on our plates, in our wallets, nor in the expansion of civil liberties.

We live between two speeds, beating on two different wave frequencies. On the one hand, the slow routine of a country stuck in the 20th Century, and on the other, the rush that seems disposed to mark the whole process of the giant of the north. The measures approved this last 16 January, which relax the sending of remittances, trips to the island, the collaboration in telecommunications and many other sectors, suggest the idea that the Obama Administration seems willing to continue making offerings to the opposing force. Obliging it to hoist the discrete white flag of material and economic convenience.

The feeling that everything can be accelerated has made some within Cuba reevaluate the price per square foot of their homes, others predict where the first Apple Store will open in Havana, and not a few begin to glimpse the silhouette of a ferry linking the island with Florida. The illusions, however, have not stopped the flow of emigrants. “Why should I wait for the yumas to get here, if I can go and meet them there?” a young man said mischievously, as he waited in line for a family reunification visa outside the United States consulate in the Cuban capital at the end of January .

The fear that the Cuban Adjustment Act, which was passed by the U.S. Congress in 1966 and offers considerable emigration benefits to Cubans, will be repealed has multiplied illegal migration. Those who don’t want to leave, are preparing to take advantage of the new scenario.

A few years ago emigration fever led thousands of compatriots to dust off their Spanish ancestors in hopes of obtaining a European Union passport, and now those who have family in the United States sense an advantage in the race for Cuba’s future. From there can come not only the longed-for economic relief, many think, but also the necessary political opening. Lacking a popular rebellion to force changes in the system, Cubans pin their hopes on conditioned transformations from outside. One of the ironies of life in a country whose political discourse has so strongly supported national sovereignty.

Those who have more problems dealing with what happened are those whose lives and energies revolved around the conflict. The most recalcitrant members of the Communist Party feel that Raul Castro has betrayed them. Eighteen months of secret conversations with the adversary is too much time for those stigmatized by a colleague in their workplace because they have a brother living in Miami or because they like American music.

Just outside the United States Interest Section in Havana (SINA), the government has not replaced those ugly black flags that used to fly between the anxious gazes of Cubans and the well-guarded building. No one can even pinpoint the moment in which the billboard boasting, “Gentlemen Imperialists, we are absolutely unafraid of you” was taken down. Even TV programming has a vacuum, now that the presenters don’t have to dedicate long minutes lambasting Obama and the White House.

Miriam, one of the independent journalists who is slammed by government television, wonders if now they are no longer demonizing anyone because of the rapprochement with American diplomats, or in order to cross the feared – but seductive – SINA threshold. Many wonder the same after seeing Cuban officials, like Josefina Vidal, smiling at Roberto Jacobson, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere.

In a house in the Cerro neighborhood where they have opened a pizza stand, a man in his 50s turned off the radio so he didn’t have to listen to Raul Castro’s speech on that Wednesday. He clicked his tongue angrily and shouted at his wife, “Look out, afterwards we get screwed!” Santiago, as he is called, couldn’t graduate as a doctor because his whole family left in the Mariel Boatlift in 1980 and he was declared “unreliable.” Although, since the mid-nineties he’s back in touch with his exiled siblings, he still feels uncomfortable because now what was previously forbidden is applauded.

Twenty-four hours after that historic announcement, all around the capital’s Fraternity Park it was like an anthill. Old American cars that operate as collective taxis in Havana converged there. The owner of a 1954 Chevrolet pontificated on a corner that now “the prices of these cars are going to go through the roof.” Surely, the man concluded, “The yumas are going to buy this junk like it’s a museum piece.” A country “for sale” waiting for the deep pockets of those who, until yesterday, were rivals.

This feeling that the U.S. will save the island from economic hardships and chronic shortages underpins an illusion clung to by millions of Cubans. We have gone from Yankee go home! to Yankee welcome!

The blacker official propaganda painted the panorama in the U.S., the more it helped to foster interest in that country. Every attempt to provoke rejection of the powerful neighbor brought its share of fascination. Among the youngest citizens this feeling has grown in recent years, supported also by the entry into the country of audiovisual and musical productions that celebrate the American way of life. “Sometimes, to annoy my grandfather, I put on this scarf with the United States flag,” confesses Brandon, a teenager who greets the dawn on weekends sitting on some bench on G Street. All around him, a fauna of emos, rockers, frikis, and even vampire imitators, who gather to talk loud and sing together. For many of them, their dreams seem closer to materializing after the embrace between the White House and the Plaza of the Revolution.

“We have a group of Dota 2 players,” says Brandon about his favorite pastime, a videogame that’s causing a furor in Cuba. He and his colleagues spent months preparing for a national tournament, but after 17 December they have begun to dream big. “The international championship is in Seattle in August, so now maybe we can participate.” Last year, the Chinese team was crowned champion, so the Cuban gamers haven’t lost hope.

The first Netflix user in Cuba was a foreigner, a European diplomat who rushed to get an account on the well-known streaming service, just to know if it was possible. It costs him just $7.99 a month, but the broadband necessary to reproduce video required him to pay the Cuban Telecommunications Company another $380.00 a month for an Internet connection. Now in his mansion he enjoys the most expensive Netflix in the world.

Baseball games with major league teams; famous rock bands coming to the island; Mastercards that work in ATMs all over the country; telecommunications companies that establish direct calls to the US; Colorado farmers willing to invest in the troubles of Cuban peasants; made in USA TV presenters who come to film their shows in the streets of Havana; and attractive models – weighed down by their own scandals – taking selfies with Fidel Castro’s firstborn. Cuba is changing at the speed of a tortoise that flies by clinging to the legs of an eagle.

Despite everything, the Plaza of the Revolution does not want to acknowledge its failure and has surrounded the reestablishment of relations with the United States with an aura of victory. It claims to have won through surviving for more than five decades, but the truth is that it has lost the most important of its battles. It doesn’t matter that the defeat is now masked with cocky phrases and boasts of having everything under control; as a jaded Santiaguan says, “After so much swimming they’ve ended up drowning on the shore.” Seeking that image of control, Raul Castro has not reduced the repression against dissidents, which in February reached the figure of 492 arbitrary arrests. The Castro regime extends a hand to the White House, while keeping its boot pressed on the non-conformists in its own backyard.

However, the disproportion of the negotiating forces between the two governments has been noted, even in popular jokes. “Did you know that the United States and Cuba broke off relations again?” one of the incautious mocked in December. Before an incredulous, “Noooo?!” the jokester responds with a straight face: “Yes, Obama was upset because Raul called him collect.” There is all the material poverty of our nation contained in that phrase.

While no one believes that the Castro regime will end up crushed by McDonald’s and Starbucks, the official propaganda occasionally revives a cardboard anti-imperialism that no longer convinces anyone. Like that in Raul Castro’s bombastic speech at the 3rd CELAC Summit in Costa Rica, in which he made tough demands for the reestablishment of relations with Washington. Pure fanfare. Or like Fidel Castro’s latest message to Nicolas Maduro, offering him support “against the brutal plans of the U.S. Government.” Or like the calls to defend the Revolution, “before the enemy that tries new methods of subversion.”

The truth is that on December 17 — St. Lazarus Day — diplomacy, chance and even the venerated saint of miracles addressed the country’s wounds. We needed a half century of painfully crawling along the asphalt of confrontation on our knees to bring us a little of the balm of understanding. Nothing is resolved yet, and the whole process for the truce is precarious and slow, but on that December 17th the ceasefire arrived for millions of Cubans who had only known the trenches.

*Translator’s note: This is the longer version of this article originally published in El País Semanal.

A Robinson Crusoe-like Singularity

An illustration of Robinson Crusoe.

An illustration of Robinson Crusoe.

Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 23 March 2015 — A young Panamanian told me in detail about the two weeks he spent in Havana, the new family that welcomed him here, and his surprise at a coastal city with almost no boats. His story resembled those of many who arrive on the Island for the first time, ranging from amazement to happiness, passing through tears.

However, his most astonishing conclusion was that that, thanks to the country’s disconnection, he had been able to live that long without Internet. Fifteen days without sending an email, reading a tweet, or worrying about a “like” on Facebook. On returning to his own country, he felt as if he’d been at a technology rehab clinic.

The same thing happened to Richard Quest, the well-known presenter of the Business Traveller program on CNN. This weekend we saw the British journalist hallucinating before a 1959 Cadillac, which he classified as a real “living room on wheels.” Aside from the beauty of a car like that, and its excellent state of preservation, I don’t know if Quest is aware that he was looking at a vehicle that was preserved because of its owner’s inability to acquire another, more modern one, at a dealership.

Robinson Crusoe, abandoned on his island far from the developed world, surely kept some pieces of his shipwrecked boat, but like any human being, he deserved access to modernity and progress.

I don’t know if the world is ready for our country to cease to resemble a mid-twentieth century sepia-toned postcard. Will it accept that we no longer appear as a country of “beautiful” ruins, with people sitting around on street corners because it makes no sense to work for such low wagers, and a population smiling at tourists because, among other reasons, these foreigners have access to the longed-for hard currency? Will the world allow us to find our identity if we no longer cling to this Robinson Crusoe-like singularity?

Will the world allow us to find our identity, if we no longer cling to this Robinson Crusoe-like singularity?

I address these questions to the rest of the world’s inhabitants, and not to the Cuban government, because the latter has demonstrated that a society locked in the anomaly of a forced past is much easier for the powers-that-be to control. My fears are that Latin America, the United States, Europe and the rest of the world are not prepared for a modern, competitive Cuba that looks to the future. A country with problems, like everyone, but without that patina of the fifties that is so attractive to those nostalgic for that decade.

It is possible to stop being Robinson Crusoe, but we have to ask ourselves if the world is prepared to see us return from the shipwreck.

“Hello? Hello?”

Public telephones in Cuba (Silvia Corbelle)

Public telephones in Cuba (Silvia Corbelle)

Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 13 March 2015 – She dialed the number and waited. Nothing, not a ring, not even a busy signal. She tried again and then got a woman’s voice telling her to wait on the line. After several minutes she realized it was a scam, but she’d already lost half the value of her prepaid card. Finally, she was able to connect, but her mother’s voice sounded as if she was speaking under water and she was barely able to say she was fine and that she missed her. The line was cut and her call to Cuba ended.

Among the many dramas that play out because of emigration, in the case of Cuba we have to add the complications of communicating with Island. We have the most expensive rates in the world for those who want to communicate with us, only comparable to countries at war or nations collapsed by some conflict. Cuban exiles have spent billions over these more than fifty years to talk to their families in their native land, resources subtracted from the hard work of opening a path to a new reality.

Thus, the announcement of a direct connection between Cuba and the United States for voice calls has been received with hope, a sign that such telephonic absurdity may soon end. The signing of the agreement between the US-based IDT Domestic Telecom Corporation and our national monopoly ETECSA opens the door to other possible understandings in this important area. It is a first step whose effect is still barely noticed, but which is undoubtedly good news for those living with affections fragmented by the Florida Straits.

The agreement between ETECSA and IDT is undoubtedly good news for those living with affections fragmented by the Florida Straits

In Cuba, expectations are focused not only on being able to call the United States directly without having to go through third countries. Eyes also shine when people imagine that they might be able to access the Internet via this pathway. A data connection managed by American companies but accessible from the Island has become the most widespread desire for those who don’t want to wait another year to enter cyberspace.

However, this possibility has not yet been mentioned by ETECSA which, like any company that responds not to commercial interests but rather to ideological ones, prefers to prolong censorship over the Internet to earn money. But that’s just for now. Still and all, it is a relief that very soon Cuban exiles and emigrants living in the United States well see a reduction in the stumbling blocks to communications with their relatives in Cuba. Picking up the phone, dialing a Cuban number and waiting for a line will not continue to be an adventure with unpredictable results.