A Chef on the 14th Floor

The chef José Andrés cooking in the kitchen of the 14ymedio newsroom. (14ymedio)

The chef José Andrés cooking in the kitchen of the 14ymedio newsroom. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 18 April 2016 — José Andrés arrived in Havana at the best and worst moment of the year. One of the most famous chefs in the world knocked on the door of the 14ymedio newsroom the same day that Barack Obama was saying goodbye to the Cuban people. The shortages in the markets were an incentive rather than an obstacle for the Spaniard who moves easily between the glamorous kitchens of Washington DC and the wood fires of an impoverished Haiti.

In his fingers, each ingredient becomes pure magic. “What do you have?” He asked. And the answer reflected this period of empty shelves in stores. However, the art of cooking is to combine precisely what there is, the ability to convert the little one has at hand into have something marvelous for the palate.

In Cuba you need to be more alchemist than cook to turn out a tasty dish.

There he was, in our newsroom, this Paracelsus of the stove. “What do you have?” He asked again. Very little. Since early this year, with the price increases imposed by the government on many of the food markets and the absence of goods in the stores that sell in hard currency, it is difficult to buy everything from a cabbage to a pound of chicken. On the shelf, a package of Russian oats, scored in 2010, lights up the eyes of chef José Andrés. “We are going to do something with this,” he boasts.

Uniting the elements – including some he had bought under the counter in the streets of Havana – he turned a few somersaults and emerged from the kitchen with steaming and unique dishes. The great chef had climbed to the 14th floor to create an unforgettable dinner on a historic day.

The Voice Of Your Rights

Yoani Sánchez inaugurates a series of interviews on the channel Deutsche Welle Latin America: The Voice of Your Rights. (Video capture)

Yoani Sánchez inaugurates a series of interviews on the channel Deutsche Welle Latin America: The Voice of Your Rights. (Video capture)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, 4 April 2016 — What to do when you have a loudspeaker in your hand? Since 2007 when I started my blog Generation Y, this question has haunted me. Often the visibility does not benefit those who need it most and the protective umbrellas provided by access to international organizations only reach a few. To occupy the microphone to broadcast only your own speech is a wastefulness that is a monologue more than an informative work. The Voice of Your Rights, the new interview program I will host on the Deutsche Welle Latin American TV program seeks to bring the megaphone to those who need it most.

With 40 episodes filmed in Panama City, the new space hosts a guest list essential for those who want to know our region and learn about the stories of its people. Environmental activists, women who fight against femicide, human rights organizations that denounce prison overcrowding and groups addressing child labor from all viewpoints are some of the themes that will be addressed by the people with whom I will share the studio in the coming weeks.

My role in this program, which has as its protagonists those who are trying to open a window where the door is closed, is not only for a professional challenge in my career as a journalist, but part of a personal commitment to the most silenced in every society. The cameras and the power of audiovisual media will serve to make their projects more effective and their lives less dangerous.

Obama Is Surrounded By Symbols To Win The Hearts Of Cubans / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

Havana is preparing to welcome US president Barack Obama. (14ymedio)

Havana is preparing to welcome US president Barack Obama. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 20 March 2016 – He arrives on the Island on Palm Sunday, will attend a baseball game, and has already spoken by phone with the most popular humorist on the Island. Barack Obama’s plane has not yet landed and already he has stolen the hearts of a legion of admirers through a series of symbols. A meal in a paladar (a private restaurant), a phrase from José Martí in his major speech, and a mention of Cachita, the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, would complete his upcoming gestures of enchantment.

On Saturday night Cuban TV broadcast a video in which the humorist Pánfilo called the White House to talk to the president of the United States himself. A masterstroke of the Obama administration, it thus placed itself miles away from Cuba’s powers-that-be, who lack any talent for laughter. Through the character of this old man who is obsessed with his ration book, the president of the United States addressed the Cuban people and did so in their own language.

This morning, for a few hours, people will put aside conversations about high food prices and complaints about the collapse of transportation, aggravated by the security measures that plague the city. On the streets there is a resurgence of jokes starring Pepito, the mischievous child of our folktales, who emerged from his long silence to laugh even about the great visitor’s mother-in-law.

Symbols are a part of Obama. For black and mixed-race Cubans his coming is a reminder of how remote the arrival of the Cuban president seems to some of them. Cuba’s historic generation, white and rancid, has ruled for more than half a century over the destiny of a people whose skin tones span the racial spectrum. In the poorest neighborhoods, the occupant of the White House has many fans, and in those same areas the popularity of the Plaza of the Revolution is taking a nose-dive.

The man who today will descend the airplane stairs with a firm step, trotting as usual, will present a strong contrast to the gerontocracy that dominates Cuba. In a country with a serious demographic problem, where the majority of young people dream of emigrating, this leader born after the events of the Bay of Pigs is read like fresh page in a history book with too many volumes dedicated to the past.

He is also coming, with his family, to a nation where we never knew who Fidel Castro was married to and where, for decades, his children were never officially presented in public. He will visit the cathedral in Havana and for his major speech on Tuesday they have chosen a historic theater, one of the few places on the island where ideology has not been able to remove its purely cultural connotations.

However, with each symbolic chord Obama touches in the popular imagination, he assumes a responsibility. The expectations are overflowing because Cubans want to cling to any hope that makes them believe the future will be better. The dreams of economic relief, the end of food shortages and improvements in the country’s infrastructure, are at their highest point this Sunday but have a short expiration date.

People want Saint Obama to work miracles. They have placed candles on his altar and said a prayer that he will bring them the prosperity promised by others for more than half a century. For many families, the most anticipated marvel is summarized in it being easier to get a plate a food, a desire expressed in the street with every possible rhyme that joins Obama’s name and the popular word for food: jama.

Thousands of parents across the country are putting on the shoulders of the visitor the responsibility of convincing their children not to leave on the rafts of despair. They believe that he will be able to stop this incessant flow that is bleeding the country, if only he manages to persuade them that a new Cuba is just around the corner. For the nine migrants who just died trying to cross the Straits of Florida, it is a chance that comes too late.

The marvel others are expecting from Obama is connectivity, as if in Air Force One the United States president will have brought the fiber optic cable that will lift the Island from the precarious state of its internet access. The man who has used social networks intensively in his political career is seen as someone who can do a great deal to sneak Cubans into cyberspace.

In the prisons, thousands are waiting for the president of the United States to achieve an amnesty. Opponents of the current government project major openings in political spaces and room for expression. In the hospitals, patients await the arrival of resources to upgrade deteriorating emergency rooms, and in the Cuban countryside expectation of access to machinery and seeds bears the face of Uncle Sam.

Obama arrives in Havana on the first day of Holy Week. Awaiting him is the glory of his popularity and the cross of excessive hopes.

Women, Always Postponed

We are measured by the most demanding scales and they ask from us the greatest patience. (Photo: Silvia Corbelle)

We are measured by the most demanding scales and they ask from us the greatest patience. (Photo: Silvia Corbelle)

Yoani Sanchez, Washington, 3 March 2016 — A few days after the murder of two young Argentine women tourists in Ecuador, a man in the city of Santa Clara in Cuba set fire to his house with his two children inside, as revenge against his ex-wife. Violence against women runs freely in Latin America and on most of this planet. A day like this March 8th, a day of tributes, flowers and speeches full of praise, does not erase the horror, nor the belittling.

The constant aggression we women suffer takes the form a blow from an abusive husband, but also is present in every minute of our lives, both in the professional order and in the social order. To walk alone at night, to sit alone in a park, or to take the sun on a beach “unescorted” by a partner, are moments that many Cuban women experience with more discomfort than enjoyment.

The limits within which we can move are made clear very early: Respectable or whore? Good wife or questionable spinster? Dedicated mother or bad mother? Submissive or quarrelsome? Made up or slovenly? Good cook or useless in the kitchen? Every attempt to free ourselves from these narrow frames implies double the effort for a man and a proportional quantity of external insults.

The violence starts from the time we’re small, when we prepare to be “beautiful and delicate,” forcing our tastes, affinities and vocations. They impose on us to be condescending and sweet, demure and silent; subordinate to masculine initiative and patiently bearing all. The ways girls are raised, in their families and in the education system still prevailing in our country, lock us into narrow, 19th century gender roles.

We are measured on more demanding scales and asked for the highest levels of patience. If a woman is the victim of lewd abuse in the street, most people’s immediate reflection is that she is wearing “very provocative clothing” or wiggling her hips too much. The aggressor is considered someone who “is acting like a man” while the woman is the brunt of the worst adjectives.

Women television presenters must be luxuriant and attractive, while her masculine colleagues can be gray-haired, double-chinned and pot-bellied, and no one bothers him about it. In government something else happens. The “male chauvinist” power we have lived under for nearly 60 years likes to be photographed with pretty faces and hold honeyed ceremonies on International Women’s Day. They give us flowers and call us “compañeras,” while the rest of the year they put the brakes on women’s demands and the independence of any initiative for gender equality.

What has happened to Cuban feminism is what happens to a professional woman who ends up locked in the house with a jealous and dim-witted husband. They take her best years, keep her from experiencing life and taking to the streets to demand her rights and now demand that she remain calm, gentle, supportive of those who mix testosterone and power, which is another form of violence masked by supposed praise and compliments.

The appropriation of our bodies by force is a heinous crime, as is taking our freedom, imposing on us a model of what we should be, and prolonging these discriminatory patterns, this false market of values, where ovaries are worth less than testicles.

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.