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.

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The Impossible Letter

“You will write a letter addressed to Fidel Castro thanking him for free education,” the center’s educator told the students. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 29 June 2017 — “Today we are going to practice writing a letter,” announced the fourth grade teacher at a school in the Plaza of the Revolution district in mid-June. Immediately, Lucia, age 9, thought about writing a letter to her grandmother telling her about her latest acrobatics on skates, but the recipient had already been decided. “You are going to write a letter addressed to Fidel Castro thanking him for a free education,” declared the educator.

The girl froze. It never would have occurred to her to address a letter to a dead person, nor to anyone who wasn’t a friend or a member of her family. She scribbled the date on the top of the page and then stopped, with the pencil suspended in the air, not knowing what to do. “Lucia, you have to thank him for building schools and teaching Cuban children to read,” ordered the teacher.

The student remained paralyzed. “Come on, it is very likely that on the test they will ask you to write a letter to the Comandante and you have to practice.” The pencil didn’t move a fraction of an inch. “Look, I’m going to dictate some sentences to you and then you can continue on your own,” the teacher said, her tone increasingly irritable. “Fidel, without you I would have no shoes and no books and I would be illiterate,” she dictated. But the girl didn’t make a single mark.

When she got home the sheet of paper still had only the day and the month in one corner. So it was her mother’s turn to insist, “Think that you are writing another person and then later put ‘His’ name on it,” she proposed as a trick to get around the problem. Lucia imagined she was telling her grandmother about the games in the park, and thanking her for her affections and then signed it, squeezing in her name next to a drawing of a flower.

Last week the final exam included the request to write a letter. But this time it was addressed to the teacher and had to respond to the question, “What do you do to help your mom with the housework?” The girl stopped for several minutes with the pencil suspended over the paper without knowing what to do. No one came to dictate the sentences.

* This story is not literature, but absolute reality. The student’s name has been changed to avoid retaliation.

These Are Good Times For The ‘Weekly Packet’

A Cuban accessing the Weekly Packet’ from his laptop at home. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, generation, Yoani Sanchez, 27 June 2017 — Official propaganda has been euphoric since Donald Trump spoke at the Manuel Artime Theater in Miami. The government discourse rages with an intensity that hasn’t been seen since the campaign for ‘The Cuban Five’, the spies serving sentences in the United States. Faced with this saturation of slogans, many opt to take refuge in the ‘Weekly Packet.’

The Cuban Government seems to be advised by its worst enemies in terms of content dissemination, in view of the excess of ideology and ephemeris of the national media. The result is the galloping loss of viewers who opt for the informal networks of distribution of audiovisuals, series and films.

Each line of the incendiary political tirades published in the written press equals more than one los reader, tired of so much rhetoric. It is easy to detect through the comments on the street how the ‘rating’ of the media controlled by the Communist Party is collapsing these days, especially among the youngest.

In the past, television viewers tired of so much empty talk had to watch anyway, in the absence of other options, but now Cubans live in the age of USB memory and external hard drives.

Now, while the national media rant against the United States president’s new policy toward Cuba, the informal market is awash in entertainment material that has nothing to do with politics.

A bad quality copy of The Mummy starring Tom Cruise, or Wonder Woman featuring Patty Jenkins, along with the eighth installment of Fast and Furious, grab the attention of the fans of the Weekly Packet, and offer nothing but a headache for the government propagandists who don’t know how to attract that lost audience.

It is significant that science fiction, fantasy and car racing triumph where politics loses ground. Cubans escape reality through fiction, they evade propaganda by choosing programming far removed from ideology.

Two Solstices Seen From Our Newsroom

The winter solstice (above) and the summer (below) seen from the newsroom. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 21 June 2017 — It has been six months since a photo taken from 14ymedio’s newsroom, last 21 December, captured the moment when a reddish sun was about to sink into the longest night of the year. This Wednesday the image reflects the other extreme and the reporters of this newspaper look out over the day with the most light: the summer solstice.

From the municipality Diez de Octubre to Old Havana the restless star has traversed the landscape of our balcony. A brief route before the eyes, but incredibly transcendent for nature and life. Spring has ended in the northern hemisphere and the 93 days that summer “officially” lasts have begun, although the thermometers have us believing that we are already in the hottest season.

On this terrace it is impossible to ignore the resounding news that today, at noon, the sun will be at its highest point of the year and will illuminate us for the longest number of hours. In the southern hemisphere winter will begin and it will be the longest night. Meanwhile, in the street, life remains oblivious to how the stars place themselves above us.

The rainy season has also begun, although El Indio seems reluctant to cede prominence to the downpours and insists on mistreating with its rays the already affected Cuban landscape, which is suffering the most grueling drought in a century.

It is true that there will be scarcely any difference between today and tomorrow, that our spring is as close to the summer as one can imagine, and that the sun strikes equally in June as in August, but an avalanche of events has occurred in the six months since that other solstice. In December we were in a total diplomatic thaw with the United States and today we grind our teeth amid the political glaciation, led by President Donald Trump.

In half a year we have also had to say goodbye many times to the friends who have left, the official press has been filled with obituaries, and in our newsroom the gray hairs are sprouting and the impetus to report grows. I only wish that on this day, the longest of the year, the light will accompany us in both its real and metaphorical sense, and give us clarity to know what news is and what it is not; what sinks us and what saves us.

The Swamp Of Wealth

Limiting wealth requires specifying how much a person can possess and where the prohibitions begin. (EFE)

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 6 June 2017 — Almost a quarter of a century ago, the government launched a battle against illicit income that ended with the detention of dozens of criminals but also of prosperous entrepreneurs. During the dreaded Operation Flowerpot, you could be denounced just for having a freshly painted house, wearing new clothes or sporting a gold chain.

Popular humor has coined a joke that describes the arrest of a “New Rich” in 2030, where the infraction is possessing three cans of condensed milk and two brooms. Jokes like this point out the weakest part of the raids against the well-to-do. What’s the starting point for someone to be considered wealthy or a hoarder?

The relativism surrounding such definitions has come to the fore again during the last extraordinary session of Cuba’s Parliament, which supported a prohibition against accumulating property and wealth. Such limitations remain to be expressed in a law that establishes a clear limit on the possession of material goods.

The deputies of the National Assembly could see fit to define the amount of money that the savers will be allowed to keep in their bank accounts, how many clothes they can hang in their closets, the number of pairs of shoes they can wear and even the amount of shampoo they’re permitted to use when they wash their heads…

Such an enumeration seems absurd, but limiting wealth consists of specifying the quantity allowed and where the prohibitions begin. Without these exactitudes – generally ridiculous and elusive – everything remains in the realm of subjectivity, at the mercy of the whims of those who apply the punishments.

To add moisture to that legal swamp, the champions of such bans are, in most cases, people who do not even have to put their hands in their pockets to buy food. They live on privileges, free supplies and perks that insulate them from the daily life and the hardships of most Cubans.

They, who have accumulated all the wealth, fear that someone who has not assaulted a barracks, wielded a gun or shouted slogans, could move in a few feet from their mansions, run a hotel more competitive than those run by the Armed Forces and manage – and this is their worst nightmare – to have the economic autonomy to launch a political career.

Economic Crime, the Pitfall in the Path

The question “do you have papers for those sacks?” is among the most repeated by the police to detect the “illegal” origin of a commodity.

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 22 May 2017 — The saleswoman described her merchandise in a murmur: loggerhead turtle steaks, beef and shrimp. The man salivated, but replied that he could not buy any of those products, the most persecuted in the informal market. Every opponent knows that the authorities would want to try him for an “economic crime,” and perhaps that saleswoman was just the bait.

The techniques used by an authoritarian government to control citizens can be as varied as the fertile imagination of the repressors. Some are designed in air-conditioned offices using studied methodologies, while others arise on the fly, from seemingly fortuitous situations.

Are the economic constraints that we live under a calculated scenario to keep Cubans locked in a cycle of survival? Do so many prohibitions seek to leave us civically paralyzed, feeling ourselves guilty and with one foot in a prison cell?

Beyond the conspiracy theories, officialdom has managed the informal market as trap for the nonconforming, a framework for gathering information about the deep Cuba, an element of blackmail against its citizens and a lure to hunt down political opponents.

The Plaza of the Revolution has turned its bad economic management into another way of keeping society in its fist. It knows that families will do everything possible to put food on the table and will turn to the underground networks to buy everything from their children’s shoes to the dollars that at the official currency exchanges are taxed at 10%.

In many cases it is just about waiting, like the spider who knows that sooner or later the little insect will fall into its sticky threads. State Security only has to wait for a dissident to buy coffee “under the table” or to dare to have the bathroom retiled by an unlicensed tile setter.

Although it is a practice that has been engaged in for many years, in recent months there has been an increased tendency to accuse activists of alleged economic infractions. They are charged with crimes that ordinary Cubans commit every day under the patronizing eyes of the police and with the complicity of officials or state administrators. However, in the case of an opponent, the law has the capacity to be narrower, more rigid and more strictly observed.

In all international forums, Raúl Castro’s government boasts of not having political prisoners and it supports this argument by severely, but politically selectively, criminalizing such trivial matters as keeping four sacks of cement or a few gallons of fuel at home, without being able to show the papers that prove they were purchased in state stores.

Journalist Henry Constantin is accused of “usurpation of legal capacity” for working as a reporter in an independent publication, but dozens of ex-military are appointed managers of tourist facilities without ever having studied hotel management or business management. None of them have been reprimanded for serving in a position for which they are not formally qualified.

Karina Gálvez, a member of the Coexistence Studies Center, is being prosecuted for alleged “tax evasion” during the purchase of her home. However, before the new tax imposed on real estate transactions came into force, thousands of Cubans thronged the notaries to complete their paperwork under the previous tax laws, far removed from the real estate market rates. Not one was sanctioned.

Eliécer Ávila, leader of the Somos+ Movement, had his home broken into in a police raid and is charged with the offense of “illicit economic activity.” His “crime”: possessing a laptop, rewritable discs and several disposable razors. Unlike those thriving artists who import the latest iMac from the market or “Daddy’s kids” – children of the regime’s leaders – who have a satellite dish to watch Miami television, the activist committed the offense of saying he wants to help change his country.

The lesson is that no matter what degree of economic illegality you commit, keep your mouth shut and don’t criticize the government. It is not the same to buy beef in the informal market when you pretend ideological fealty to the regime, than it is to do the same when you belong to an opposition movement.

The black bag can become a wall, a noose, a hidden trap for those who do not applaud.

When The Abuser Is The Government

Universidad-Central-Villas-Karla-Gonzalez_CYMIMA20170424_0011_13

Karla Pérez González has been the victim of a new type of harassment, this time incarnated in a campaign of character assassination. (Courtesy)

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 4 May 2017 – I was in the third grade and the teacher chose the most aggressive girl in my class to be the room monitor. She was given carte blanche to control the other children. Later, the abuser rose to a position in the Federation of Middle School Students and joined the Union of Young Communists. Today she is an active part of a Committee for the Defense of the Revolution. She is corrupt and violent, but highly valued by the authorities in her area.

Cuba’s National Center for Sexual Education (Cenesex), led by Raul Castro’s daughter Mariela Castro, has launched a campaign against homophobic and transphobic bullying in schools. The initiative includes the family in order to “understand what it is about, to help the girls and boys, the teenagers, the young people, and all the staff of the school,” says the sexologist.

Mariela Castro says that the level of abuse in schools on the island is “fairly low,” an affirmation that demonstrates – at the very least – her lack of connection with the Cuban reality. Without reliable official figures, any investigation of the subject must appeal to the personal experience of individuals and this is when the stories and testimonies of bullying in the educational environment surface.

The high schools in the countryside, promoted by former president Fidel Castro, were a reservoir of these abuses, many of them carried out under the impassive eyes of the teachers. Suicides, rapes, systematic robberies of the most fragile, accompanied by power structures more typical of prisons than an educational institution, were the daily bread of those of us who attended these schools.

I remember the spring of 1991, when a student threw himself off the water tower of the People’s Republic of Romania High School in what is now Artemis province. He had been harassed by the taunts and pressures of several classmates. We were all crowded together in the central hallway during the evening’s recreation hour when we felt the thud of his body landing on the concrete.

His harassers never paid for that death, it never became a data point in the statistics of student victims of bullying, and a family had to bury a son without being able to put a name to what had happened to him: abuse. In the weeks after that death another student slit his wrists – fortunately he didn’t die – and a group of twelfth grade students beat up a tenth grader for “having feathers,” i.e. being effeminate.

However, abuse in the schools doesn’t end there. There are many ways to harass a student and not all of them come from his or her classmates, nor are they motivated by sexual stereotypes, strict gender roles or group bravado. Ideological violence, exercised by power and with the consent of the school administrators, is another way to inflict psychological damage.

A few weeks ago, a journalism student at the Central University of Las Villas was the victim of institutional abuse that will leave permanent psychic and social scars on this young girl, just 18. To make matters worse, it was the leaders of the University Student Federation who behaved toward Karla Perez Gonzalez as the school abusers, like the leaders of a gang or the thugs of the hour.

Since her expulsion, the former student has been the victim of a new type of harassment, this time embodied in a campaign of character assassination that would be laughable if it weren’t aimed at destroying her self-esteem and turning her into a non-person. To do something like that to a student of such a young age is an act of rape from power, persecution dressed up in the robes of school discipline.

The abusers, protected from above, end up feeling that they can destroy lives, denounce innocents and beat others as long as they are protected by an ideology. A system that has fomented political thuggery in its schools and its streets cannot confront bullying in all the complexity that the problem presents.

Noisy campaigns to fill foreign media headlines and the collection of large funds from international organizations is not the solution for all the Cuban children who have to deal, right now, with the physical blows, the ridicule of their classmates or partisan indoctrination in their schools.