In The Mirror

Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, 6 March 2016 — There is an aunt with her hair in rollers and a maternal gaze, a neighbor in a housecoat and that friend blowing out the birthday candles. They are known faces, family members, but they live hundreds of miles from the island, and come to us, as in a mirror that returns our image without distortions or cracks, through Geandy Pavón (b. Las Tunas, Cuba, 1974) and his exposition, The Cuban-Americans.

In that far off geography, the emigrants weave their dreams, taking on new customs, maintaining their taste for rice with beans, and sighing for a country that only exists in their memories. In that “internal space” where Cuban-Americans pass their lives, what the writer Gustavo Pérez Firmante called the hyphen or dash, “that unites, while separating, nominally and culturally, the Cuban and the American.”

Pavón captures in a series of black and white photographs that were exhibited at the Cervantes Institute of New York, a part of the nostalgia of those who carry their roots on their shoulders so that a new generation can bear fruits. Parents who left behind their world of references, the house where they were born and even their wedding rings, with the obsession of giving their children a future. They are like us, but they have lived more, and the title of “Cubans” sounds sweetly and painfully in their ears.

Their names are Josefa, Paco, Pedro, Yosvany, Miguel… and they have experienced daily contact with other cultures, the pleasure in the little things they managed to carry with them: a yellowed photograph of Grandma and a memory of the dog barking from the farm path. They are also burdened with the depression of exile, the conviction that they don’t belong entirely to the land they left behind nor to the one that received them. They are beings who carry with them their own homeland.

The exhibition is full of intimate moments, indoors, in the heat of the home where the Cuban identity is expressed in a gesture, an attitude or simply the nostalgic feel in a gaze

The exhibition is full of intimate moments, indoors, in the heat of the home where the Cuban identity is expressed in a gesture, an attitude or simply the nostalgic feel in a gaze.

The author of The Cuban-Americans took as a reference Robert Frank’s famous series of photographs, The Americans. The work of the American artist was heavily criticized in its time for not embodying “the image of progress and greatness they wanted to project in the fifties,” recalls Pavón. Like Frank, he also wanted to escape “the stereotypes, the commonplace.”

This “no man’s land,” where the exiles have found themselves because of politics, intolerance and immigration restrictions, resembles in many details the island we have woven within the bubble of our intimacy. An identity hard to catch in the tourist snapshots or sepia postcards that so content the foreign eye. More than a photographic work, Pavón has had to undertake a true immersion in that abyss of Cuban identity.

From this plunge, he has returned without beautiful ruins, old cars, or easy smiles. Instead of that, the artist claims to have “found another Cuba outside Cuba,” a nation that long ago ceased to be contained on an island.

Apple vs the FBI, a Dispute as Seen From the Cuban Prism

An Apple iPhone. (EFE)

An Apple iPhone. (EFE)

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Washington, 5 March 2016 — When they returned his mobile phone all his contacts had been erased and the card with the photos was gone. Stories like this are repeated among activists who have been detained, over whom an iron vigilance is maintained with the complicity of the Telecommunications Company (ETECSA), the technology arm of repression in Cuba. An entity that should take note of the rebuff Apple has dealt the FBI in the United States, by refusing to access its clients’ data.

For decades, Cuban society has become accustomed to the government’s failing to respect individuals’ private spaces. The state has the power to delve into personal correspondence, to display medical records in front of the cameras, to air private messages on television, and to broadcast phone conversations between critics of the system. In such a framework, intimacy doesn’t exist, one’s personal space has been invaded by power.

People see as “normal” that the phones are tapped and that in the homes of opponents hidden microphones capture even the smallest sigh. It has become common practice for ETECSA to cut off dissidents’ phone service during certain national events or visits from foreign leaders, and to block the reception of messages whose contents upset them. This Orwellian situation has gone on for so long, that few take note any more of the illegality involved and the violation of citizens’ rights it entails.

The feeling of constant supervision has come to affect the way we speak, filling it with whispers, gestures and metaphors, to avoid saying those words that could get us into trouble. To the extent that few mention the names of Fidel or Raul Castro, substituting a gesture over the face as if touching a beard, or making slanted eyes, or placing two fingers on one’s shoulder to allude to “them,” “the power,” “the government,” “the Party.”

The limits of the state to obtain private information are currently at the center of an international debate, sparked by the United States government demand that the technology company Apple unblock the telephone used by a terrorist, who participated in a shooting in California where 14 people died. The discussions have risen in tone between those who brandish the needs of the security agency, and those who see it as a danger to violate the rights to protected data.

These kinds of questions are very far from Cuban society, where the need to reconquer the privacy lost over more than half a century of the interference of power in every sphere of daily life is never publicly raised. Even keeping a private diary, closing the door of a bedroom, or speaking softly, are frowned upon by a system that tried to replace individuality with massification, and to eradicate intimacy in the promiscuity of shelters or barracks.

Apple fears that by creating software to unlock its phones, it cannot avoid the government or hackers from collecting the private information of millions of innocents. It knows that any power is insatiable with regards to the information it wants to have about others, hence the law should curb and rein in those excesses of interference that characterize all governments.

The dispute over privacy and security will continue for a long time, because it is the eternal tension between the limits of social space versus personal space. The clash between the interests of any nation and that fragile but essential part that makes us individuals.

To Cusio And Libna, Wherever You Are

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 22 February 2016 — He was an acknowledged homosexual and she a convinced Jehovah’s Witness. One lived in the same tenement where I was born and the other in the dreaded “218,” where violence and sewage competed for a starring role. Cusio and Libna should have grown up with the conviction that every sexual orientation or religious belief is respected and necessary, provided it does not imply violence against the other.

They achieved something unthinkable in the Cuba of the eighties: reaffirming that beds and beliefs belong to all of us, and no ideology should interfere in them. They were the true survivors of uniformity, the shipwrecks of the storm of “parameterization” and police raids. Now in my forties, I continue to owe a debt to the lesson in plurality they taught me.

Cusio experienced abuse and neglect, but he was always smiling. From Libna, I learned patience, to swallow hard when everything is against me, and keep going. I lost count of all the humiliations I faced for not wearing the neckerchief, that piece of cloth that was making my neck itch and that now reminds me more of the yoke used on oxen than any ideological commitment.

One day I lost sight of both of them. We grew up, reached adulthood, and the game of childhood ended. I know Cusio stayed with his adoptive parents until their final days, in a Cuba where material poverty results in so many old people being abandoned. Of Libna, not a trace. I don’t know if she is still living on the island or if she decided to leave, with her persecuted beliefs, for some other place.

As time goes on I think about them more. I appreciate the lesson of humility that developed before my eyes, without expecting anything from me, not a vindication, not even a hug.

A Visit More Symbolic Than Political

The US president, Barack Obama talks with his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro. (White House)

The US president, Barack Obama talks with his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro. (White House)

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 18 February 2016 — The last time a United States president visited Cuba Havana’s Capitol Building had not yet opened, baseball’s star pitcher The Black Diamond died, and my grandmother was a little girl with messy hair and a penetrating gaze. There is no one left who remembers this moment who can tell us about it first hand, so Barack Obama’s arrival on the island will be a new experience for all Cubans.

How will people react? With joy and relief. Although there is little the president of another country can do to change a nation where we citizens have allowed a dictatorship, his visit will have a strong symbolic impact. No one can deny that the resident of the White House will be more appealing and popular among Cubans than the old and uncharismatic general who inherited power through his bloodline.

When the presidential plane touches down on the island, the discourse of the barricade, so commonly called on by the Cuban government for over half a century, will suffer an irreversible blow. It will not be the same as seeing Raul Castro and Barack Obama shaking hands in Panama to see them to meet on the territory that until recently was full of official billboards against “the empire” with mocking caricatures of Uncle Sam.

The Communist Party press will have to jump through hoops to explain to us the official welcome of the commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the “enemy country.” The most recalcitrant Party militants will feel betrayed and it will be clear to all that, behind the supposed ideology, there is only a determination to cling to power through the typical strategies of political chameleons.

In the streets, people will experience the enthusiasm of the unexpected event. For black and mixed-race Cubans, the message is clear and direct in a country where a white gerontocracy controls power. Those who have a T-shirt or sign with Obama’s face will flaunt it on those days, taking advantage of official persuasiveness. Fidel Castro will die a little more in his guarded Havana refuge.

“President” brand beer will run out in the cafés, where loud calls to “give me two more Obamas” will be heard, and there is no doubt that the civil registries that week will record several newborns with names like Obamita de la Caridad Perez or Yurislandi Obama. Pepito, the little boy who stars in our popular humor, will release a couple of jokes for the occasion, and tchotchkes sellers will offer items with the lawyer’s profile and the five letters of his name.

One thing is clear, however, beyond the trinkets of enthusiasm, the leader of the United States cannot change Cuba and it is better if he doesn’t try, because this national mess is our responsibility. His trip, however, will have a lasting effect and he should take advantage of the opportunity to send a loud and clear message in front of the microphones.

His words should be directed to those young people who right now are assembling a raft, fueled by their despair they carry within. He needs to let them know that the material and moral misery that surrounds them is not the responsibility of the White House. The best way in which Obama can transcend Cuba’s history is by making it clear that the perpetrators of the drama we are living are here, in the Plaza of the Revolution in Havana.

The Cuban Railroad Died

Railroad in Cuba. (EFE)

Railroad in Cuba. (EFE)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, 29 January 2016 – My father is a train engineer. It has been decades since he drove a train, long years in which he hasn’t sounded the whistle of a locomotive while passing through a village with children running alongside the line. However, this still agile retiree originally from Matanzas still marks the 29th of January on the calendar and says “it is my day.” The day still smells of iron braking on iron, and has the rush of the platform, where some leave and others say goodbye.

The date honors the guild established in 1975, during the finishing of the first stretch of the central line. At the celebration Fidel Castro operated a Soviet locomotive, a moment that is still a source of amusement among elderly train engineers. “Everything was ready and he didn’t even get the credit of making that mass move,” says an old conductor in his eighties. The event, more about politics than railroads, was enough to let the imposed anniversary go.

The 19th of November should be the date for those who carry the iron serpent circulating in our blood. The day the first rail link in Cuba was completed, between Havana and Bejucal, in 1837, should get all the credit to earn itself a celebration that goes beyond the fanfare of the politicians and the headlines of the official press. In those nearly 17 miles (27.3 kilometers) of the initial line, a lineage began that refuses to die.

Now, when I stand in front of the lines at La Coubre terminal in Havana and observe the disaster that is rail transport in Cuba today, I ask myself if the era of the “sons of the railroad” will come to an end. Old cars, unsafe, accidents, delays, long lines to buy a ticket, luggage thefts, the stench of the toilets… and an iron fence that isolates the platform and those going aboard from those who are saying goodbye.

The Cuban railroad died. There is not much to celebrate on this day.

The One-sided Paralysis of the Cuban Press

Television remains under a strict monopoly of the Communist Party to sustain a biased editorial line does not represent the national complexity.

Television remains under a strict monopoly of the Communist Party to sustain a biased editorial line does not represent the national complexity.

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 5 January 2015 – Sometimes I wish I lived in the country they show on television. This hopeful nation of rose-colored dreams presented by the official press. A place of props and slogans, where factory production exceeds goals and employees are declared “workplace heroes.” In this Cuba, bouncing off the antennas to reach our small screens, there is no room for sickness, pain, frustration or impatience.

The official Cuban press has tried to approach the country’s reality in recent years. Several young faces appear on TV programs to report on administrative negligence, poor services, or consumer complaints about bureaucratic paperwork. But even still, state journalism continues to be a long way from objectivity and respect for the truth.

Television, radio and newspapers are maintained under strict monopoly of the Communist Party, and not only because they are ideologically subordinated, but also because they are financed from the state coffers – money that belongs to all Cubans – money that they use to sustain a biased editorial line that does not reflect the national complexity.

The topics covered by the journalists of this partisan press represent the interests of an ideology and a group in power, not of the entire country. They never dare, for example, in their reporting, to question the authorities, nor the current political system, nor the organs of State Security nor the activities of the police, among other taboo subjects.

However, where the official press most betrays the precepts of balance and impartial information is in the testimonies they broadcast, in the voices they give space to and the opinions they express. By the grace of journalistic censorship, access to the microphone is granted only to those who agree with the government and applaud the actions of its leaders.

They never interview someone with a difference of opinion, or someone who believes the country should take other political or economic paths. Unanimity continues to fill the front pages and the news broadcasts, although for a long time now loud dissent has been heard on buses, in stores, in the hallways of institutions and even in classrooms.

At the beginning of this year an avalanche of reports filled the television broadcasts. The protagonists were young people who claimed to live “in the best of all possible worlds,” smiling with confidence in their future and not even dreaming of emigration. Not included among the opinions were those from anyone in the process of leaving Cuba, or feeling frustrated by their professional prospects, or submerging themselves in illegalities to survive.

In the almost 70,000 hours of annual television broadcasts not a single self-employed person complains about their high taxes. Parents who fear the growing violence in Cuban streets are never encountered in the Cuban media, and women beaten by their husbands don’t appear demanding legal measures to protect them from the abuse.

The teachers whose pay doesn’t allow them to live a decent life find no echo of their demands in the media, nor do dissidents appear to demand respect for their opinions. An inmate denouncing bad prison conditions has no chance to appear before the cameras, nor do the patients who have been victims of medical ethics violations or bad treatment in the Public Health System.

This entire area of Cuba, the widest area, remains outside the authorized media. Because the official Cuban press doesn’t exercise journalism, rather it proselytizes. Although it is made up of many professionals with university and post-graduate degrees, they do not have the freedom to engage in the work of reporting. Instead of looking for the truth, they try to impose an opinion. What they do cannot even call itself “the press.”

The Deadly Kiss of Price Controls

The official press blames private producers for the high prices of many foods. (14ymedio)

The official press blames private producers for the high prices of many foods. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 4 January 2016 — I was ten years old when Fidel Castro launched the economic battle he called the “Rectification of errors and negative tendencies.” The Maximum Leader’s rage fell, at that time, on private farmers and on the intermediaries who marketed their products. Cuatro Caminos Plaza in Havana, then known as the Single Market, was assaulted by officials and after that raid several foods disappeared from our lives: onions, garbanzo beans, chili peppers and even taro.

Almost a decade later, when the country had reached bottom with food shortages and scarcities, the government again authorized non-state food markets. The first time I approached a stand and bought a string of garlic, without having to practice stealth, I recovered a part of my life that had been snatched from me. For years we had to appeal to the illegal market, to a precarious clandestinity, to get things ranging from a pound of beans to the cumin seeds needed to season them.

However, the return of “farmers markets” has not been free of attacks and government animosity. The official press blames private producers for the high prices of many foods, and the figure of the intermediary has been demonized in the extreme. In the last 2015 session of the National Assembly, the idea was floated of imposing price regulation on certain food products, to force merchants to reduce the amounts.

At first glance, this would appear to favor consumers. Who wouldn’t consider it good news that a pound of pork without bones would not exceed 30 Cuban pesos, or never reach the astronomical 50 peso asking price in Havana’s Egido market at the end of 2015. The initial reaction of customers would be to welcome it, because a single lemon would no longer cost one Cuban peso, nor would papaya sell for 5 Cuban pesos a pound. However, behind the regulated prices come greater evils.

What could happen is that the products subjected to price controls would disappear from the agricultural markets and once again go into hiding. We would not be able to go to the corner to buy a pound of onions, like we have done over the last two decades, but would return to the times when we’d end up at the side of some road or in the middle of nowhere illegally dealing directly with the producers or the persecuted intermediaries.

Consumers would end up paying the piper for a measure that does not solve the problem of the lack of productivity on our farms or of the extremely low wages.

An economy is not planned on a whim, nor is it managed by force of restrictions, rather it is a fragile framework where lack of confidence and excessive state control are like a deadly embrace, leaving us without the ability to breathe on our own. In this grip, controlled prices come to be feared as the kiss of death that strangles commerce and leaves it lifeless.