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Archive for April, 2009

The advances of change

Many of the topics being discussed in light of these times and the measures of flexibility being announced by the U.S. government, are the related to the possible answers from the Cuban government.  Popular imagination, and hope long deferred, looks to the charismatic Obama as the source for any future changes for Cuba.  Once again social criteria predominates, magnifying the importance of the powerful neighbor to the north to venture a solution to our ills.  But are the causes of our problems external?   Are we going to confirm the official line?

I must clarify that I too consider the measures the American president has begun to adopt to be important.  Whenever I’m asked if I believe that these policy changes toward Cuba are positive, I reply confidently, “Yes.”  It truly seems effective to me to destroy the principal argument of the Cuban government for repressing freedoms within Cuba.  The myth of the external enemy is the first ghost that must be exorcised in the spiritual mass of the Castros.  After that, the authorities must at least invent new ammunition, with the aggravating factor that already people don’t believe in the historic generation nor are they moved by events and slogans.  Certainly we find ourselves at a turning point, something must change, but who should be leading the change?

It seems that Cubans, in their inordinate desire to always find the light outside their insular geography, just don’t understand that while a dialog between the governments of the two countries to begin to normalize relations is very significant and promising, and it facilitates the collapse of the official justifications for the internal restrictions (such as the humiliating exit and entry permits, the censorship of free opinion and free associations, the absence of civil and economic rights, and so on), the real dialog must occur between the government of the island and Cubans.  It’s clear, however, that power will not agree easily to a dialog, especially given the national inability to demand from the leaders.  The most discussed turning point now affects us all.  If we Cubans are not capable of beginning to act civically, we won’t know what to do with democracy even if they give it to us.  It already happened before.  Will we continue like eternal adolescents, who hope to sleep with those who give them things they aren’t able to build for themselves?  To date there don’t appear to be signs of another nature.

It’s possible that the embargo may eventually disappear.  Then we will have to see if the mental blockade of a large segment of Cubans is maintained; as much inside as outside Cuba, they just don’t understand that it’s time to stop demanding solutions from other governments, the solutions have to come from the Cuban government.  In this case, for example, consider the issue of political prisoners and human rights.  The government, finally, after denying it for decades, has implicitly recognized the existence of political prisoners in Cuba, judging by the recent declarations of General Raul Castro, who expressed a willing to talk (with Obama, not with us) about these and other historically thorny issues.  Earlier, he’d expressed a willingness to exchange the Cuban prisoners of conscience for the five spies (State Security combatants) imprisoned in the United States, thus recognizing the differences that exist between decisions made by a plantation owner and those taken by the president of a State governed by the rule of law.   The political prisoners are hostages of the government, but they are Cubans; so they are OUR problem and not that of foreign countries, by which I don’t meant to exclude or spurn the importance of international solidarity.

Moreover, the existence of political prisoners in Cuba demonstrates not only the repression of the dictatorship, the absence of real democracy, and the lack of freedoms; but it is also a proof of the lack of a civic sense among Cubans, many of whom are ignorant of the existence of the prisoners themselves and of the terrible prison conditions in which they can barely survive.  We follow then, with great interest, that which is brewing in the major centers of international politics, but we start by looking inward.  So perhaps one day, when we finally have freedom, we will know what to do with it.

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More on other bandits…

Only a week had to pass before the column Receipt Requested [Acuse de recibo] by José Alejandro Rodríguez (Juventud Rebelde, Sunday April 19, 2009 ) was again publishing stories of the Bandits of Báguano, to which I have already made mention in a recent posting: “Banditry in the East?”   This time we are treated to a letter sent to the Receipt Requested column of Juventud Rebelde by Roberto Guerrero Sánchez, president of the municipality of Báguano, in which an official says that “ a commission created to investigate the denunciation, including the participation of the Party, the government and the MININT in the territory, verified that the contents of the previously mentioned letter are uncertain.”  Ironically, this official communication manages only to confirm what they are trying to deny.

Beyond the urgency with which the ‘commission’ was created and a ‘determination’ reached,  our attention is called to the flagrant disrespect the governor of Báguano has for “his people,” not to mention the scorn he has for the intelligence of the journalist and the readers of Receipt Requested.  According to the official, the letter that denounces the banditry was written by a resident of Havana who often visits his family in the eastern zone, who also “met with a group of people, some of them elderly women with physical limitations, asking them to sign a petition he was going to use to ensure the problems of crime would be solved in the community. These ‘signers’, as the result of further investigation, were determined not to have understood the contents of what they had signed due to the low level of education offered in this region.”

As you can see, to be women, old and physically limited are disqualifying factors for having opinions in Báguano, even though the text implicitly indicates the existence of crimes in the zone. This was the ‘pretext’ that the ill-disposed man of Havana used to gather the signatures previously, therefore surely he had the twisted intention of gratuitously creating a negative opinion regarding the local government and of damaging the Revolution.  Another important fact in the letter from the governor of the zone is that it seems to indicate to us that Arroyo del Medio is entirely populated by illiterates unable to read the contents of the document they were signing.  Could it be that the governor forgot that Cuba has been declared an illiteracy-free territory since 1962? As a collateral, this suggests an urgent need to detour teachers who have been sent to Venezuela and other regions of the world back here, to eradicate the ignorance of the people in this important part of Cuban geography. At least this way, everyone will have the opportunity to read and understand exactly what they are signing. It now occurs to me to wonder if these peasants signed the text of Eternal Socialism without being able to read it, or how they select their representatives during the elections for the Popular Power… It’s only one worry that haunts me. If the confusion of the region is due to ignorance, I cannot even imagine the level of instruction given to the settlers of Cuchillas del Toa or of Caridad de los Indios, in Yateras.

On the other hand I would like to know: Who asked this commission to denounce anything? Who allowed them to believe that the revolutionary press is a space for denunciation? I feel incredible compassion for the 20 peasants (who are no longer among the 66 signatures of the original letter) who, according to this official, live in Arroyo del Medio.  For it was not enough for these people to have suffered the threats of the unknown bandits who steal their farm animals and crops but going forward, for their civic daring, they will also have to suffer the pressures and condemnations of these other bandits perfectly endorsed by their brand new Party cards and with perfectly authorized government documents.

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Banditry in the East?

In a post I published this month (Under the sign of the violence) I was commenting on the rise of crime in Havana.  However, on Sunday April 12, the journalist José Alejandro Rodriguez confirmed in his usual newspaper column “Receipt Requested” in Juventud Rebelde that this phenomenon is not confined to the capital.  It’s not a consolation, rather the opposite:  the column included a letter signed by 66 farmers from a remote community in Holguín province, “desperate because of the impunity with which ruffians and thieves make free with their goods and persons.”

It turns out that in the rural district Arroyo del Medio in eastern Báguano, there are apparently organized criminals who devote themselves to stealing livestock for which they later demand from the owners thousands of pesos in ransom.  The farmers worry that if they complain (to the authorities I suppose), the bandits will wipe out what little they have.  According to what was published in the newspaper, the victims claim, in addition, that “you can no longer work the land because a large percentage of the crop goes into the hands of these unscrupulous people.”   Unlike in the classic style of the old Western films of the U.S., these new bandits of the 21st century are worthy rivals of those of the Cuban middle ages—the 17th and 18th centuries—who devastated the countryside.  The new ruffians have the incredible audacity to invade the farmers’ properties and even stone those who dare to confront them, afterwards withdrawing peacefully with their loot and sending their demands for ransom.  Even worse, it seems that when faced with any accusations, the offender only has to pay a fine to the court… Are the judges participating in the dividend, or is that the prisons are already crammed with certain individuals, those whom the system finds more “inconvenient” than it finds the bandits?  In any case, how is it possible that Cuba recently imposed penalties of up to four years in prison or correctional labor for those who traffic in cartons of eggs, powdered milk and so on in the black market, and we tolerate these dangerous people remaining at liberty to continue committing their crimes?

The Juventud Rebelde journalist is quick to clarify that, “the political and disruptive implications don’t escape the peasant wisdom, that in the long run they have these vile acts in a country where so much has been done for the peasant since the first days of the Revolution…”  Finally, it’s understood that José Alejandro has to be mindful of his job, guaranteeing, or at least showing, an impeccable political health, but in any event I think he is very courageous in the column, allowing himself to divulge this and so many problems facing the Cuban of today.

Some friends from the Island’s interior have also told me stories, their own and those of others, about the increase in certain kinds of crime where they live, pointing to a generalized dangerous situation in the whole country.  The case of the farmers of Arroyo del Medio, then, seems neither unique nor isolated but an example of what is happening, one more symptom of the social deterioration brought to us by bad government policies and the sustained economic decline over the last 50 years.

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Obamitis

I am very worried, because lately I have started to reflect on things… and everybody knows that this is a clear symptom of senile dementia.  I admit that there is a certain dose of sick interest in unpleasant things in this, a direct consequence of reading the official Cuban press.  Every day I get the paper and inevitably review it from head to tail, most times, incorrectly hoping to find something interesting.  Instead, and against all predictions, I find solace in little comrade F’s Reflexiones.  No, my friends, I’m not contradicting myself, I have already said and maintained that this man does not interest me, but I must admit with great embarrassment that his section of the newspaper is practically the only thing that deserves to be read: an exercise which is both fun and instructive, especially for readers who, like me, like anthropological studies, human psychology, or those who feel the curiosity to learn about certain manifestations of conduct dysfunction, with the additional ingredient that it is the patient who does the writing.  Reflexiones, it must be noted, is a perfect little jewel.

In recent weeks the patient has spent most of his artificially and clinically renewed energy on the U.S. president through long paragraphs that reveal the accumulation of feelings that he provokes, which may be summarized in a single one: envy.  F no longer knows what to do to call Barack Obama’s attention.  He winks at him, he sticks out his tongue at him, he whistles at him, he applauds him, all at the same time, in a pathetic effort to get noticed. It has even come out that he proposed to the Black Congressional Caucus that visited Havana that he wants to “help” Obama.  Not surprisingly, the “Negro president” does not pay him the slightest mind. Could it be that he doesn’t need the “help”?

Anyone who does not believe me about F’s antics can verify what I say by reading Reflexiones.  No sooner does he seem to praise Obama then he launches himself in a more or less overt fashion to criticize him, no sooner does he try to satirize the young president (The Obama Song, Saturday, April 4th, 2009) then he questions US foreign policy (Contradictions in US foreign policy, Thursday, April 9th, 2009) truly highlighting his own personal contradictions, as can be observed in this direct quote: “Though he bears the contradictions pointed out, healthy beyond proof, like a work machine and with an agile mind, the Negro president carried out his first visit abroad with unquestionable results.”  A few lines wholly portraying not the subject he is characterizing, but the subject who is doing the characterizing.

The bitterness of a being with a sick ego is transparently crystal clear, one who sees in another everything he wanted to be and was not: a leader of global significance to whom it is essential to give space in the most important forums, a healthy young man, full of good ideas and vital energy, a president democratically elected by his people, called to implement important changes in a nation that is the #1 global economy, a politician who will have the opportunity to demonstrate whether or not he will be capable of overcoming the crisis; a president, in short, of a free country. F is the past, Obama, a renewed hope for the future. As if all this were not enough, this president is—the Superancient One has already reminded us with marked sarcasm—a Negro.  It’s the last straw!  And F bleeds pitifully from his wound.

All this explains that every day I await the newspaper’s arrival and I look for Reflexiones, smiling and pleased.  At this rate I think F’s main sickness doesn’t hide in his deteriorated intestines, he now has a new infection that is exclusively his: Obamitis.

Title Illustration: Stone image, possible representation of Maquetaurie Guayaba. According to Taíno mythology, this character is the Lord of Coaybay, the region inhabited by the dead. (Work belonging to the Museum of Anthropology, History and Art, University of Puerto Rico).

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Small new "freedoms"?

They say that small things make big things happen. I must say, I’m not so sure of that. At least, I don’t think this axiom can be applied to politics, especially when there are many and great things that need changing. I am referring, in particular, to some discrete measures that seemingly will be applied and would create a tiny “opening” in the bleak economic landscape of the island.  In a closed, totalitarian society such as this one, this may constitute the first step to provide some measure of changes in policy… if we let ourselves be optimistic.

One such measure is quite unique. According to an article published in the newspaper Tribuna de la Habana last Sunday April 5th, licenses (permits) will begin to be extended to all private vessels that from 1994 to today have been waiting for such approval. As can be assumed, the provision, benefiting a slim group of owners of small boats, is a sign of some easing of tensions, since the main obstacle to granting such licenses has been the fear of human trafficking or kidnapping of boats and yachts for the purpose of migrating to Florida.

The news has aroused great expectations among the happy owners, whose vessels have been vegetating for fifteen years at their moorings, waiting to go out to sea.  They have launched themselves to scrub, paint, and make them seaworthy, with the illusion of devoting them to fishing or to exploit them doing tourist excursions. The possible increase in tourism with the entry of visitors from the United States as potential customers is another incentive to the illusion of some yacht owners. In addition, many of them also speculate on the approaching end of the Cuban Adjustment Act that would allow such activities without the fear of finding themselves kidnapped in the high seas by groups wishing to emigrate, with the involuntary detour and loss of their boats. There are many ex-owners of yachts who can relay anecdotes of this nature.

Still, for now, at the mouth of the Cojímar river–and I am presuming near the exit to other nautical bases–the concrete steel bars closing the narrow gate to the sea remain buried in place. It remains to be seen whether, this time, the government will meet the expectations it arouses in some people, and these sailors won’t have to wait another fifteen years to navigate their yachts. Let’s hope so.

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Are the slaves rebelling?

It is rumored that the staff of the Cuban Institute of Sports, Physical Education and Recreation (INDER) is concerned: the athletes have taken up the habit of claiming a share of the revenue they bring to the owner of the plantation, while the managers and their assistants, charged with keeping a tight rein on the athletes, don’t know what to do now.  They say the latest uprising revolves around the money received for participation in the World Baseball Classic, a part of which they will have to award to the players.  That is, the Cuban players aren’t content with showing that play at the highest level isn’t earned by patriotism or revolutionary merit, now they demand at least some monetary compensation for the tough moments spent during the competition.

But baseball isn’t the only headache for the authorities.  The now unstoppabale exodus of high-performing athletes to other countries, where they are achieving real success in their respective specialties, leaves the ever scarcer athletes of that quality still on the island reluctant to participate in small competitions—those of the patriotic revolutionary type—which don’t yield any dividends either in the form of money or as a sign of prestige in their careers.

The flight of four young baseball players, reported at the end of March in the specialized blog Terreno de Pelota [Baseball Land], is one more piece of evidence of the collapse of the sport enthusiast in the center of the Island.  This time the group of “traitors” included a player from Santiago de Cuba, breaking the myth of the unending patriotism of that team.  As usual, the official Cuban press has said nothing of these new desertions.

Another form of legalized desertion is through marriage to foreigners, which permits legal departure from Cuba and quick normalization of status in the host country.  This method turns out to be so expedient that it’s apparently become common practice.  Finally, in recent years, Cuban athletes have decided to exploit their own competitive capabilities for themselves, and become free people: good for them.  For my part, I wish them every success.

Here, meanwhile, many INDER executives have been watching the backs and plotting their next move.  It’s something to see, so many opportunists living off the sweat of the athletes and they haven’t even been able to prevent their escape.  The boss must be furious.  Once again the authorities, blind and deaf to an irreversible reality, are sharpening their scythes for some scapegoats; a method as useful as it is ineffective, which serves only to calm the impotent palace rage but does not change the indisputable truth one iota: the myth of revolutionary and socialist sport is definitely broken.

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Elephants and ants

Undoubtedly, the flock of twelve roaming elephants belonging to Cuban artist José Emilio Fuentes is one of the most colorful and spectacular shows of the Tenth Havana Biennial. Today at a main intersection in the city, tomorrow in a crowded square, the truth is that this other peculiar flock enjoys the public’s general acceptance (¿empathy?) and there is no shortage of those who claim that they will miss their presence when the event ends.

The cultural authorities have made use of the pachyderms’ popularity to promote the success of the X Biennial. The entire official press has published pictures of various venues where the famous elephants have been shown and the expert critics have come up with more than one review over the unprecedented display.

However, culture overseers have been careful to keep silent about certain “ants” that were also in this edition of the Biennial. Of course, that was not what the performance organized by artist Tania Bruguera, also Cuban, was called.  The performance was presented on Sunday night, March 29th at the Wilfredo Lam Cultural Center in Old Havana but, without a doubt, the interventions of all who took up the unique opportunity that was offered to speak before microphones, without censure, for one minute, stung like fire ants.

I was not there: those ill-headed friends of mine who went and expressed themselves had no time to let me know, or they simply did not remember to do it, so I missed this wonderful opportunity to celebrate a minute of free speech. I forgave them, because, politely, right away, they sent me the video so I would be able to enjoy the sight of those crushing ants making their voices heard, crying out for the basic freedoms that we lack, circumventing the official ring, ridiculing the censorship that insists on gripping us but can no longer contain the growing need that people have to express themselves. Nobody could imagine that, once the ice had been broken, so many anonymous people would be encouraged to climb to the podium to denounce censorship and lack of freedoms and rights, that a young man would declare that he had never before felt so free, that another citizen would openly declare “I’m scared” and that the public would chant: “Freedom, Freedom, Freedom!” One minute per speaker became many minutes of the echo in the souls of all present.  I know it because I felt an infinite emotion while watching the small video. It was then that I realized that I was also there.

There were no disturbances or riots; no representative of the “outraged peoples” took the microphone there (even for 30 seconds) to accuse the participants of being mercenaries trying to subvert the order or, -at least- to express their disagreement. The crowds that filled the old galleries and overflowed into the hall cheered deliriously. Incredulous and surprised, street passersby would enter, attracted by what they heard over the loudspeakers: freedom has a greater convening power than any slogan. I was able to see many young faces among the excited and happy audience: adrenaline and hope, expressions I have not found among the faces that admire the elephants. It’s nothing personal, I too am very fond of José Emilio’s elephants, but how very firm were the steps of the little ants that shook the X Biennial on the memorable night of March 29th!
 
Illustrating the post: “Liberty leading the people” by Delacroix. Interestingly, a copy of this subversively eminent painting hangs on the railings of the Castle of the Royal Force, just meters from the Wilfredo Lam Center.

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