Combinado del Este Prison

Nine in the morning outside Combinado del Este, the largest prison in Cuba. Dozens of families are gathered to listen to an stern guard shouting out the names of the prisoners. Immediately, they order us down a narrow stretch to the sentry box where they search our bags and run a metal detector over our bodies. They also inspect the sacks of food the families have been filling for weeks with crackers, sugar, powdered soft drinks, cigarettes and powdered milk. They are the result of the unselfish efforts of the families who deprive themselves of these foods to bring them to the prisoners.

One woman cries because the guard won’t let her bring in the ripe mangoes she brought for her son. People hang along the fence around the entrance without any protection, all those not allowed to enter. There is a bag with a mobile phone, a young woman’s wallet, some deodorant that the official says could be made into moonshine within those walls. Me, they search the magazines I carry, give a pull on the zipper of my jacket, and run their fingers through my hair. Ahead of me there is someone trying to bring in a cake for a birthday that surely happened months ago. A young man grips his pants because they won’t allow his belt inside. It would appear we are plunging into hell and–in some ways–it’s true.

The place where we spend the visit smells of sweat, sweat and enclosure. The two Italian prisoners in front of me desperately put words one after the other. They have been arrested for the murder of a minor in Bayamo, but assure me that they hadn’t been on the Island on the days of the crime. They’ve spent more than a year in prison without trial and I try to reconstruct, journalistically, the course of the case. One of them Simone Pini, talks to me about police irregularities and and I agree to investigate. “I can’t do much,” I tell him, “nor do I have access to the investigation record, but I will find out.” I haven’t finished my sentence when a guard shouts my name through the bars of the room. And leads me to the other side of Combinado del Este. To the immaculate, air-conditioned and wood-paneled office where the Chief sits, located in a different part of the same horror. Meanwhile, a lieutenant colonel warns me that they will never ever let me enter this prison again. When I try to leave, I note that the door has a lock with four combinations. “So much fear…” I think to myself. They escort me to the exit and I see a line of family members for the next visit that starts at noon. They carry sacks scrawled with names, and someone groans because they won’t let him bring in a present. I discover in this moment that something sad has established itself in me, like the weight of the bars which, since then, I carry everywhere.

Private Tutors

June is the month when students finally launch themselves on their books, serious scholars review their notes, and we parents jeopardize our wallets to pay for private tutors. For years, the existence of these informal teachers has been undervalued when taking stock of Cuban education, but those of us with children in the middle grades know well their importance. Right now, if a teenager doesn’t receive extracurricular attention from a private tutor he has few chances — or none — of being accepted into college. Teaching — paradoxically — has been privatized, but without public acknowledgement.

Demand is so high that in these last weeks of classes the houses of freelance professors are packed. The cost of one hour’s review varies between 20 and 25 Cuban pesos, one-tenth of the average monthly salary. Attending the classes compensates for the incredibly low level of secondary and high school educators, especially in the subjects of mathematics, physics, chemistry and grammar. But it also must be said that there are many high school students who want to cram in the last minute all the content they paid no attention to in more than ten months of classes. The material and conceptual impoverishment, excessive ideological indoctrination, and the lack of seriousness during the school day, take their toll during final exams, and thousands of parents are willing to pay rather than accept failure.

The reality makes a mockery of the slogans. Those who have resources can provide their progeny with additional teachers; those who don’t, will have to settle for a frame on the wall with just a 9th grade diploma. Lately, in the living room of any apartment, you see fingers writing as fast as possible, taking notes like nobody’s business, total silence and a great show of interest. These are the students with their private tutors, the extra teaching support without which they can’t go very far. They know that each of these classes is a sacrifice for the whole family, so they absorb the words, the digits, the theorems. They will, without a doubt, take one more step toward the starting line, with an additional advantage over those who never had a private tutor.

How To Blog

Presentación de mi libro “Un blog para hablar al mundo” from Yoani Sanchez on Vimeo.

Presentation of my book, “A Blog to Speak to the World.”

Translator’s note: In this video Yoani is speaking to a presentation of her book taking place in Madrid, which she is currently participating in via Twitter and telephone. [as of 3:00 PM Havana time, 21 June]

Change in Mentality

They came with their trucks, a grader and even a new machine for recycling asphalt. They worked all morning before the astonished eyes of neighbors who, for over twenty years, have seen their street deteriorate without repair. For the most skeptical, there was also a dash of hope with the pavement was as smooth as glass, and then another brigade appeared. This itself was unprecedented. Instead of leaving the manhole covers below the tar–as in the past–the new group of workers dismantled them and placed them even with the ground. No one could believe what was happening. This “new mentality” some said, boasting of the already noted changes in the way things are done, was palpable.

To warn motorists of the fresh cement bordering the storm drains, they left a pile of rubble around them. “You’ll see, they’ll come back to remove it,” said the optimists. But there it stays. The passage of tires was spreading the stones all over the street, pressing them into the still-soft asphalt. The remains of the reconstruction were collecting in the grating of the drains, accumulating in the gutters. Two weeks later they were still spreading their dusty presence, and creating mounds here and holes there, spoiling the finish. “Ahh, this mentality!” the dreamers corrected themselves, immediately adding, “Instead of changing how they do things they dress it up, but it’s the same mentality as ever.”

The New Microphones

For a long time the only way to get one’s hands on that gadget called a microphone was to pass through many ideological filters. Given that same paranoia, to this day few programs on our national channel are broadcast live, so that no one can deliver–to the eyes of the viewers–opinions contrary to the system. And although in recent months criticism has been timidly allowed to pass in the official media, the doors remain closed to those who do not agree with the official discourse. Hence, we have had to find other microphones, other sets, other cameras. Improvised and less professional, yes, but indisputably more free than those of the studios at 23rd and L, at Mason and San Miguel, or at the provincial broadcast centers.

From the terrace of a house, with a sheet hung as a curtain and lights borrowed from a musician, one can make films without the boring triumphalism of the Roundtable show. One example of these new spaces that are emerging is the SATS project, where “art and thought come together,” directed by Antonio Rodiles. In a broad framework for debate, guests expound on a theme and then, later, respond to questions from the public. They analyze, equally, the trajectory of a hip hop musician, the work program of an outlawed legal association, or civil society from the viewpoint of a doctor of philosophy. Afterward, each day’s filming is distributed by the same alternative networks within which blogs, films, documentaries and opinions circulate.

Still missing, it’s true, from these space of SATS and also Citizens’ Reasons, is the presence of the “other.” Of those who defend the official versions of events and who are willing to come together with us and say so in front of a camera. But however much invitations have been extended to these people from State institutions, calling on them to debate and present their arguments, they prefer not to bestow on us the belligerence of their presence. I remain hopeful, however, that one day they will arrive. Sooner rather than later they will come, perhaps before they offer us their own spaces and allow us to speak from “their” microphones.

Mangos Every Summer

The branches bend under the weight and children throw stones and shake the limbs trying to knock down the fruit. It’s mango season. Like a cycle of life that transcends the crisis, the lack of vision, and the failed agricultural plans, the mangoes come again, the filipinos and bizcochuelos. We are at exactly the moment when the most humble courtyard in a forgotten hamlet can compare itself with a meticulously tended garden in Miramar. It is enough that the old mango tree planted by the grandparents is bearing fruit for the whole family to begin to revolve around it.

Right now, while cutting some mangoes given to us by Augustine, I think of how my life is marked by the memories associated with this smell and texture. The little ones, preserved in syrup, that we ate during my vacations in the village of Rodas, the green tart ones that we salted at the schools in the countryside, and those others that we stole–driven by hunger–from the Experimental Farm in the municipality of Guira during the dark days of the Special Period. And after one bite, the strings caught between my teeth, the juice dripped down my chin and dirtied my clothes, I sucked the seed until it was white, and threw the rind on the floor where it was as slippery as a banana peel.

Mangoes evoke every stage of my existence, each one of the periods we have gone through lately on this Island. I remember the free market known as Central–in the years of the Soviet subsidies–where I first tried Taoro brand mango nectar. Then came the process of “rectifying errors and negative tendencies,” with its sweeping away of the petty bourgeoisie; and when Taoro nectar reappeared ten years later it was sold only in convertible currency.

This fruit has the merit of having proved its incredible resistance to State farms, to the blunders that absorbed thousands of acres of land, like the 10 Million Ton Sugar Harvest, the plan to grow microjet bananas, and even the unwanted advances of the marabou weed. The stubborn mango is still here, marking our lives with its flavor, making any poor yard a haven of prosperity, at least as long as summer lasts.

Twelve Men in Brief

Image taken from Diario de Cuba gallery

As a child whenever I heard the name of Perico*, a town in Matanzas Province, I ended up with a pain in my stomach from laughing so hard. Until I learned that a part of my father’s family was from that area and the joke didn’t seem so funny to me any more. Last Saturday I was invited to go back and see its dusty embankment and dilapidated train station once again, but the departure of my sister left me paralyzed here on the fourteenth floor, not wanting to go anywhere. I very much regret not going, because twelve of the ex-prisoners of the Black Spring were waiting for us there, hosted by a good-natured hard-working peasant named Diosdado Gonzalez, who offered his home and his table for this important meeting.

Initially it was to be a get together to strengthen friendships, meet each others’ families, share of piece of that more than seven years the Cuban government had seized from them. However, Guillermo Fariñas’ decision to begin a hunger strike, totally changed the tenor of the day. The idea of relaxation was transformed into concern and the stools that were meant to support the festivities bore, instead, the weight of their worries. In brief and between sips of coffee–refilled from time to time by Alejandrina–the reunion became a civic staff council, where rather than maneuver plastic soldiers on a war map, they rearranged ideas on an historic statement.

Afterward, Pedro Argüelles read over the phone to me the approved text of that day, and once again I regretted not having been there. Among their demands, the signatories called for a serious investigation into the cause of death of Juan Wilfredo Soto. Also they call for avoiding the death of Fariñas and–in my judgment the most difficult to achieve–the cessation of repression and acts of repudiation against opposition activists. But this time the ears of power seem more reluctant to listen than they were a year ago. My fear, also, is that the body of the Sakharov 2010 Prize winner will not survive another prolonged fast. Hopefully life will surprise me and something will be done, and Perico will cease to be a village with a delightful name and become the place where words, civic conscience, and unity won over a stubborn and long-standing authoritarianism.

El Roque, Perico, Matanzas
Saturday, June 4, 2011


Given the high centralization of power and decisions in our country, we hold the Cuban president, Army General Raul Castro Ruz, responsible for meeting the three related demands as follows:

1. To allow an international multidisciplinary team, immediately, to exhume and examine the corpse of peaceful activist Wilfredo Soto Juan Garcia and impartially rule on the actual causes of death. This would help all parties.

2. To prevent the imminent death of the peaceful activist and Nobel Andrei Sakharov prize winner, Guillermo Fariñas Hernández, from the hunger strike he is undertaking.

3. To cease the repression, beatings, acts of repudiation and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment against peaceful pro-democracy and Cuban society activists.

In expectation of an appropriate response, according to current circumstances, the undersigned endorse this document:

Pedro Argüelles Morán
Eduardo Díaz Fleitas
Iván Hernández Carrillo
Librado Linares García
Angel J. Moya Acosta
Guido Sigler Amaya
Oscar Elías Bicet González
Diosdado González Marrero
Arnaldo Ramos Lausurique
Hector M. Maceda Gutiérrez
Félix Navarro Rodríguez
José Daniel Ferrer García

The original of this document was delivered to the Ministry of Justice of Cuba on June 6, 2011.

*Translator’s note: “Perico” means “parakeet” but is also a slang for people who are very humorous and tell a lot of jokes.