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.

Beans, ah, the beans!

Beans are an effective indicator to calculate the cost of living in Cuba. (DC)

Beans are an effective indicator to calculate the cost of living in Cuba. (DC)

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 31 December 2015 – Tiny and tasty, they seem to look at us from the plate and mock the work it takes to get them. Beans are not only a part of our traditional cuisine, they constitute an effective indicator to calculate the cost of living in Cuba. The price increases these delicious little bits have experienced in the past year is proof of the disastrous economic policy promoted by Raul Castro.

When, in February of 2008, the former Minister of the Armed Forces assumed the presidency of the country, many were betting on the pragmatic character of his mandate. His sympathizers never stopped reminding us of the phrase in which he asserted, “Beans are more important than canons.” They predicted that our national agriculture would work like certain farms managed by the Ministry of the Armed Forces and the Youth Labor Army.

Hopes that overlooked José Martí’s accurate maxim, “A nation is not founded like a military camp is commanded.” The behavior of a soldier in the trenches can never be equated with a farmer’s day, and an officer’s command to bend one’s back over the earth has nothing in common with the efforts of a peasant to hire someone to bring in his harvest.

The harangues against the invasive marabou weed, launched by Raul Castro in his first years as president, fueled expectations, as did his call to put a glass of milk on every Cuban’s breakfast table. The Raulistas discerned in those statements the soaring of food production and the bringing down to earth of prices, to be consistent with wages. But neither occurred.

Instead, in recent months consumers have suffered a significant increase in the cost of agricultural products. If the year started with a pound of black beans costing between 12 and 15 Cuban pesos, at the close of December the price varied between 15 and 20 pesos – the wages of an entire working day – reaching the staggering price of 30 pesos in the case of garbanzo beans.

Meanwhile, the average monthly wages in the country only grew from 581 to 640 Cuban pesos (roughly $25 US), a symbolic increase which, expressed in a worker’s purchasing power, equals about three more pounds of beans a month. The results Raul Castro has achieved with his much-vaunted methods are not far removed from the little his brother Fidel Castro achieved with his grandiose agricultural and livestock projects.

The usufruct leasing of land to farmers ran up against the bureaucracy, excessive controls and the poor state of the leased land. El Trigal, the experimental wholesale market, is a sequence of empty stalls, petulant bananas and high prices. In reality, it is easier to find an apple brought from thousands of miles away than an orange or chiromoya planted in our own fields. For the coming year, the country will spend 1.94 billion dollars on food imports, and nobody even talks about the battle against the invasive marabou weed any more.

“I have to earn my beans,” says a teacher, as he justifies dedicating his workday to cooking pork, along with a portion of“Moors and Christians”– as we call black beans and rice – that he sells illegally to the workers at a hospital. Because yes, our lives revolve, rise and fall around those delicious little bits that we long to put on our plates. Expensive and tasty, they are the best indicator of the General’s failure.

The Marriage Between Venezuela and Chavismo Failed

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro (EFE)

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro (EFE)

Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 7 December 2015 — This time neither deception nor fear worked. Like a woman long threatened by an abusive husband, Venezuela has slammed the door on Chavismo and done so with determination. From now on, governing will be an ordeal for Nicolas Maduro. With a party at an absolute disadvantage in parliament, Hugo Chavez’s successor can only impose his presidential will by violating his own laws.

The people, the same people that the president of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) invoked from the platform to justify his misdeeds, has said no to 21st Century Socialism and the national project promoted by the ruling party. A flat refusal against a political force under whose management the South American nation has been plunged into insecurity, shortages, corruption and unsustainable polarization.

People are fed up. Tired of so much tense discourse, of fear in the streets, of the constant emigration of the young and of the instability that gnaws at everything and that in the last year has gotten worse. The voters also used their votes to penalize a party that hasn’t known how to govern for everyone, but only for a part of society, which has systematically railed against those who think differently.

With the tool of the polls in their hands, Venezuelans have pushed change in a peaceful way, without stepping into the trap of violence or engaging in an armed revolution. Maduro has reaped, thus, the fruits of his mismanagement. His declarations prior to the elections, among which was the threat of fight from the streets if his party was defeated, only to the determination of a social decision that was already made. With his words, he finished digging the grave of his own executive office.

Because there is a moment when the abused realizes that the abuser is just another frail human being, someone who can be defeated. That moment arrived for the Venezuelan people this December 6, as they demonstrated with their votes that Chavismo is neither eternal nor popular. What happened confirms the loss of the fear with which a 17-year authoritarianism had permeated the country, the sick relationship of dependency and dread with which it wanted to keep its citizens paralyzed.

The election results also go against the Plaza of the Revolution in Havana. In the dark intricacies of that power that has spent more than five decades without calling elections, the figure of Hugo Chavez was molded, and it tried to do the same with Nicolas Maduro. But the move backfired because it came up against a population that reacted, an opposition that knew how to unite despite its differences, and an international community that closed ranks in criticism of the methods of the PSUV.

The axis financed from Miraflores and symbolized by the political bravado of Chavez and the mediocre arrogance of the current president, is beginning to disarm. Venezuela already sees the way out and is dragging behind itself an island that still does not dare to stop the blows of an abusive government, to close the door and leave it outside the national future.