Archive for May, 2009


May 30th, 2009

The strength and speed with which friends who support Cuba’s independent bloggers spread the news about the ban on selling Internet cards to Cubans on the Island, as well as the small but devastating video Yoani and Reinaldo shot at the Hotel Meliá Cohiba proving true what the authorities refused to recognize, were key factors in the official withdrawal relating to such an arbitrary regulation: pressure from international public opinion forced the autocrats to play-act. However, I agree with those who believe that the government has only made a strategic retreat and that it will wait for a more favorable opportunity to turn the tourniquet, the free flow of ideas and the discreet though significant victories of the alternative blogosphere are a real time bomb for them. As Yoani says, we have jumped from the virtual to the real.

At this point it is clear that the blogger phenomenon, which has experienced remarkable growth in a very limited time, not only has placed the official press on the defensive (remember that we have the scoop on the people’s press within Cuba and total freedom to publish what we feel like and not what they order us to), but it has achieved for us to be taken into account, to the point that, with us, there has been established what journalist Reinaldo Escobar has termed a ”dialogue” of government breastfed bloggers: now, in addition to attacking us with infantile slander, they use a term to classify and define us: “cyber-dissidents”. And although our words might be somewhat inaccurate or incomplete, -since it does not reflect the entire spectrum of thoughts and expressions that are contained in the Cuban alternative blogger movement- everyone here knows that the fact that they hang a label on you is the premise of recognition, even from “the negative.”

Precisely that which is unusual and spontaneous about the phenomenon makes the work of the cyber-lackeys and the repressors of the regime difficult: we do not make up a political party, we do not recognize each other as dissidents, we do not represent a particular idea, we have no leaders or statutes, we do not obey one principle or a unique conduct, other than the absolute freedom to publish in our blogs what we decided individually, assuming responsibility for it, our activities are not a crime, we are not exclusive and we do not have a common manifesto. Repression under a dictatorship state is always possible, but in current times it is not recommended. Therefore, I suggest to the authorities, instead of this futile obstinacy, the use of imagination, though history indicates that it is a luxury item for which they have never had enough capital.

Read Full Post »

“Special Media Period”

May 28th, 2009

The official press has taken issue with The Reuters News Agency in that, according to Granma (Monday May 25th, page 3) “it almost considers it a fact”, like a ghost on the scene, “the return of blackouts”. Naturally, the Reuters wire was not repeated. However, it is easy to understand the foreign agency’s “confusion” if one takes a look at the Cuban press last week:

Several articles published on May 16th, 18th, 20th, 22nd and 23rd, in Granma itself have been referring to an “over-consumption of fuel” during the first quarter of this year, which meant the upcoming implementation of a “provincial directive plan of electricity consumption for state and residential sectors”. They have also stressed the urgent need (with no postponement and inevitable) to save energy under penalty of facing blackouts; of the Island’s alarming trade imbalance (78% of imports compared with 22% of exports); of the lack of liquidity (an already recurring theme); of the importance of beginning to be really productive and efficient on all economy fronts and actions, as well as the measures, without exemption, taken against leaders who do not fulfill their obligations to “enforce and monitor compliance of the plan” or those who do not efficiently apply the money and resources the state has put in their hands”, etc. etc.

This is only a summary of the growing alarm reflected in the press. Economic problems, mainly those related to energy and agriculture, are the handiest ones of the ever-inadequate national spectrum report. Add to that the fact that, at the end of each newscast, TV broadcasters are geared to appeal to saving energy, in a campaign that –we know- precedes worse times. Granma director Lázaro Barredo’s inflamed invectives repeatedly refer to “the spending mentality” we Cubans have, an attitude that “becomes more intolerable in these moments” due to the global economic crisis. Barredo raises his little index finger admonishingly and explains to us unequivocally: “It is imperative to cut out that false and selfish mentality that many people have in thinking that when they pay the wasteful home or office electric bill they have resolved the matter. This illusion will lead us to blackouts, because there is no more money…

Any way, if –according to the official press- we are irresponsibly wasteful if we are unproductive, if we do not know enough to demand of our incompetent leaders (here Barredo launched himself into dangerous play), if we import infinitely far more than we export, if now the cardinal field of foreign income is the “savings” (even the apocalyptic slogan “Savings or Death” is invoked), if it is finally recognized the THERE IS NO MONEY, is it Reuters who is invoking ghosts? Let us not forget that almost from the beginning of this year, several municipalities in the capital have been subjected to long hours of unannounced blackouts, be it because of “repairs” or for “modernization and optimization of electrical networks” For its part, the front page of Sunday’s Juventud Rebelde (May 24th) rather than the misled call to a “powerful consensus to weather the storm” seems more like an epitaph.

Today, the most telling sign of the crisis in which we live and of its imminent worsening is the abandonment of the triumphant spirit by the press, by virtue of which, until recently, most Cubans aspired to live in newspaper or on TV news as the only way to achieve prosperity. The change in tone of the official voice is also an indicator of the new times, because although the crisis of the 90’s in the last century struck us suddenly and without warning, now the social landscape is different, and the Cuban government, being aware of it, has begun to unleash the poverty chronicle through the coaching of public opinion, which we might well call the “Special Media Period”. Thus, at least, when the endless nosedive to the bottom accelerates, they will be able to say: “I told you so,” and to once more easily place the blame of the disaster on us.

Read Full Post »

¿Just rumors?

Misinformation societies (and ours is a paradigm of this) have the peculiarity of assigning the category of news to street rumors. Sure, it also happens that almost always these rumors turn out to be true, there are even some that claim –not unreasonably- that comments take off running intentionally “from above” in order to prepare the ground for when the rumor is officially confirmed.

The worst of this rudimentary system of communication-diffusion is that it almost always carries news that is between bad and awful. No matter how hard I try, I fail to remember any good news emanating from on high, in fact, people feel a proverbial distrust for whatever initially seems to be “good” in principle and ends up doing us harm. Examples abound, as when, in 1962, the then bulky ration card was announced and introduced so that everyone would have enough food and as time has transpired, already the monstrosity made of cardboard and paper, each time containing fewer pages and sections, does not provide enough food for anyone. That is just one case, perhaps one of the oldest and more permanent, and, without a doubt, the best known, the total list of announcements that have proved fateful would sound like a very long and mournful requiem in one’s ears.

Now, one of the most recent rumors circulating around the city is the advent of a new special period. Or more accurately, the resurgence of the crisis that began about 50 years ago and whose permanent sting launches from time to time the acceleration towards the bottom of infinite poverty. To commentaries about the next restart a serious escalation of blackouts we can add the ones about the possible expected end of the school year for those schools offering boarding, due to a lack of food supplies to ensure the (already fragile) students’ diets. At least, some unofficial sources indicate that for this reason, the school year for education programs will end 15 days ahead of schedule in Pinar del Rio and Havana, it is speculated that in other provinces it will be the same.

In any case, the meager rations in urban primary schools dinning rooms have been suffering from a cutback as well. Children receive what could be considered a sample and not a lunch in their trays… I do not have any information on the food at the day care facilities and, frankly, I do not like even thinking about it. The effects an inadequate nutrition could cause in the overall development of children and adolescents can be inferred, as happened before, resulting from the great crisis of the 90’s that so indelibly marked Cubans’ psyches. A nutritional “study” conducted in primary and secondary schools at the end of that decade, whose results were not published, allowed to assign a “strengthening” in the diet of the ones who were affected the most. I have a nephew who benefited from this program: every month, for a short period, he was granted an extra amount of macaroni in his ration card. My nephew is and will always be, a runt.

Logic would suggest that the government should have an emergent plan (since we have so many teachers, nurses, social workers and we are even manufacturing doctors) to mitigate the effects of an imminent and deafening relapse, but -based on experience- no one has any trust in it. In any case, it is assumed that a return to the shameful hardships that marked the last decade of the XX century may have unforeseeable consequences in Cuba. Let’s follow the saga of these disquieting rumors.

Read Full Post »

A hot summer?

Everything seems to indicate that a dark summer awaits us here. Metaphorically speaking, this darkness could be related to the heightened repression against independent groups and individuals, opposed or not; the threat of the new swine influenza virus; worsening shortages as a result of the global economic crisis; or simply the sum of all these factors and all the “et ceteras” that accompany them… But, no. I am referring to the dimness in the literal sense, which is being announced beginning with a possible program of blackouts.

In recent weeks, a rumor has been circulating that a plan is being prepared for eventual blackouts as a result, it is unofficially said, of a reduction in the supply of oil from Venezuela. Such “lies” do not turn out to be inconsistent when one considers that the price of crude has fallen precipitously and, in some way, Castro’s benefactor, Hugo Chávez, must fulfill some promises to his voters, since, whether he likes it or not, he must go the polls again and submit himself to elections in order to continue his chiefdom (pardon me, I mean leadership) in his country, so he must make some adjustments and cuts to his gifts. Just in case, the people here have begun to buy candles and refillable lamps, as each person’s pocket will allow, in order to somehow bear the return to the cave ages. I do not know what arrangements are being made by the hundreds of thousands of families “favored” by the revolution’s energy program, by virtue of which they cook their food with electricity.

For my part, I received the rumor with certain reservations, but decided to track it down. Our press did not disappoint me and on Saturday, May 16 the front page of the newspaperGranma announced that there is “an unplanned” over-consumption of 40 thousand tons of fuel, which calls for “greater requirements on the use of electricity.” As a result, “a management plan for provincial electricity consumption will soon be in place that will apply to state and residential sectors.” There was no explicit mention of the existence of a blackout program (they prefer, gracefully, to call it a ”management plan”), but the scolding the newspaper inflicts on us by “the excesses of unjustified consumption” not only reinforces the truth of the popular whisper, but is the unequivocal prelude to the punishment that awaits us. That awaits ALL OF US, “them” and us, because between the popular discontent, the lack of positive expectations for the medium term, the violence that has reached places in society, repression and the stifling heat of our summers, the authorities will also find themselves in a dark place when controlling the protests, especially in marginal sectors, most prone to disorder. At least we can be sure that whatever the government would “save” with the blackouts it will have to spend on paint to cover the many signs (not necessarily in support of the revolution), which, no doubt, will reappear on the city’s numerous buildings and walls. This summer promises to be more so than warm, hot.

Read Full Post »

After the closing of totally all of the city’s “non-state” farmers’ markets, and as if it were a conspiracy, judging by the media’s silence, some “selling locations” of agricultural products have reopened. I have learned unofficially that in Centro Habana, the capital’s most populous county, ten such establishments were authorized again. I do not have the figures to make a comparison between the previous ones and the ones that now can count on the grace of official permission, but it is easy to infer that a dozen of them are a minimal amount for the public’s demand. The nature of the requirements for administrators to be blessed with a royal pardon, nor any commitments made by them to the authorities to get back their licenses to sell, have not been made known either.
One of the official criteria for the closings months ago, after the passage of hurricanes Gustav and Ike, was the high prices charged for products due to the illegal and unscrupulous activity of speculators. However, in the few farmers’ markets newly reauthorized (such as Star and Xifré, which was the subject of my remarks in a post) the same prices as those before the closings have been maintained, not to mention there has been a decline in the variety of products. Thus, if people seek better prices, they would have to travel greater distances to the Youth Labor Army markets, such as the popular market Tulipán in Nuevo Vedado, and return as best they can with the purchased goods, or opt to spend whatever savings they realized by virtue of the more favorable selling prices on hired transportation: the eternal vicious circle. The greatest variety of merchandise, however, continues to be at the so-called public free market, such as the Cuatro Caminos, with higher prices.
I learned that other municipalities in the city have reopened a few of these outlets as well. It could not be otherwise: the State alone would not be able to meet the population’s demand—whether = in products or in their transportation—through vegetable stands of the official network of internal trade, which in most cases are limited to the sale of potatoes assigned by the ration card and to some other island tuber such as taro or manioc, distributed under diets duly authorized by medical certificates, one of the most notorious and humane achievements of this 50-year revolution.
In short, everything is the same or worse than before the shutting down of farmer’s markets which occurred in September and October of last year, so definitely as useless a step as any implemented by the authorities.

Photography: Facade of Cuatro Caminos market (Unique Market) view from Cristina St. Part of the state of the roofs and windows on the top floor, currently closed to the public can be noted. The well-publicized “restoration” of this famous and ancient plaza through the official media was limited to a slight updating and painting of the facades.

Read Full Post »

Princes or Paupers? (II)

Tarará was one of the great experiments of the revolution destined to attract and form loyal followers from a younger age. Conceived as a sort of resort-town school, it welcomed primary school children from the City of Havana, who boarded for two weeks, alternating classes and leisure time, in the company of their teachers and some of the mothers called “fighters for education” who helped out with their care. Different schools rotated their stay in the famed “camp”, in fact, a development with houses equipped to host their guests in acceptable comfort, with blocs of classrooms to conduct the program of classes. Almost every pioneer enrolled in primary education during the 80’s decade was housed at Tarará at some time.

Despite the forced separation from families, it is fair to acknowledge that, at least, the pioneer city “José Martí”–here, the Apostle’s name has always been used for anything–offered the children leisure and entertainment, decent food and security. There was the beach, the cable car, the amusement park and sports areas. The facilities also included specialized staff: lifeguards, guides, cooks and assistants, among others. During the holiday period, Tarará, the name by which it has definitely always been known, was also visited by pioneers from other provinces.

Until the Chernobyl disaster happened and the Cuban government spotted a golden opportunity to politick with a cover-up of political humanism, redirecting the Pioneer Cuban children’s resort to the children of that unfortunate city affected by radiation from the nuclear plant. Since nothing is random, authorities were starting to see the coming crisis that would result from the collapse of the great step-mother (USSR), and were scrambling to show the world the “small nation’s” disinterest and altruism, now not only under siege by the common enemy of people–imperialism–but threatened by the eminence of the greatest economic collapse in its history. So, it was thus that some years after its ostentatious inauguration, Cuban children were stripped of their famous resort, without ever having another one assigned to them, not even a more modest one. Very many of those children who went through Tarará as pioneers are already parents themselves, many hotels and shops in foreign currencies have been fixed since then, but there never seems to be enough capital to devote effectively to the healthy enjoyment of children. While they grabbed away the children’s space, officials of the Communist Party, for example, continued to enjoy vacation plans, such as their “little hotel” in Pinar del Río, even during the 90’s in which the crisis led widespread poverty to its climax.

And since apparently children are the hope of the world only in stories of La Edad de Oro (Golden Age books), now Tarará isn’t Chernobyl’s children’s destination either, but the destination of young Chinese students who come to the island to learn the Spanish language. True, there are also spaces for foreign tourism, including a marina, and some anointed ones also live there. Anyway, when a few days ago I went by the road that crosses in front of the main entrance building, I could but smile: there is a huge image over the front of the building of the patriarch during his years as a Sierra Maestra guerrilla in uniform, backpack and rifle; a well-known national obedience slogan (“Commander in Chief, command”) reinforces the message. Very near there, possibly unaware of the history of the site that gives them shelter, a number of Chinese youngsters play basketball. And the Cuban children? Fine, thanks.

Read Full Post »

Princes or Paupers? (1)

Many readers of this blog do not remember or simply did not know the Havana where I lived out my childhood; therefore, they do not treasure the memory of the places that overwhelmed kids’ illusions…locations about which only the memories of those who once enjoyed their existence remain. But if anyone of you, like me, is bordering on the half-century or more of life and grew up in some place in the metropolitan area, you should be able to remember, almost as a duty, those leisure places where our parents took us, in which we were truly happy: Cuba Eight, where, for a reasonable price you could rent bikes and tricycles, on which we caused havoc on the wide sidewalks of the Amphitheater and the Malecón, the Youth Fair, Coney Island or the tiny Jalisco Park, three of the most popular amusement parks in the city; the beautiful 26th Avenue Zoo, the National Aquarium, the Metropolitan Park (by the Almendares) where you could play miniature golf or take boat rides; a number of movie theatres with children’s programming, including matinees, which offered a reasonable variety of animated, comedy or adventure movies, and an infinite number of parks scattered throughout the city with slides, carousels, swings and teeter-totters and also many small plazas where you could play “pon”, run wildly or skate to your heart’s content, among other possibilities for children’s enjoyment.

After the so-called 1967 Revolutionary Offensive, which leveled all the privately owned business that still remained, the bicycles with their little cyclists disappeared from the Amphitheater’s landscape, and little by little, the abandonment and deterioration, characteristic of the system, started to dominate in every one of the spaces originally conceived for the entertainment and enjoyment of the children. The official negligence, like an epidemic, invaded any hint of individuality. Then, a kind of “mass entertainment” began with the creation of large areas targeted at the formation of a collectivist and egalitarian conscience: Lenin Park, a Celia Sanchez initiative, and later on the Botanical Garden and the new National Zoo, were the prospects of the socialist concept of amusement for children and youth, all of them located at sites distant from the periphery of the City. These spaces would be the most ambitious projects that the statewide initiative would generate to such ends. Only the huge Lenin Park exhibited at the time of its ostentatious opening an aquarium, a rodeo, an equestrian club with hiking and horseback riding for visitors, an amusement park, a train that ran through areas of the park, a dam for boat rides, a complex of swimming pools, a natural amphitheater, and numerous cafes and restaurants. It is true that it worked in the beginning, but, like all state undertakings, it was destined to fail. Experience has demonstrated that the only permanent thing in this system, in addition to poverty, is the inability to support any initiative over the long run.

The collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe dragged in its fall the island satellite, absolutely dependent on generous subsidies from CAME; the overall extreme poverty turned the amusement centers into a kind of absurd ostentation amid the acute shortages. The crumbling was such that, to date, an effective recovery of such important locations cannot be observed, and finding a place to take children to be entertained has become an almost impossible mission.

I have been able to prove this more closely now, when, as a grandmother, I set out to walk with my grandson. César is only two years old and he has already visited all the small spaces where he should supposedly be able to have fun. A brief summary can illustrate what I am saying: The amusement area at Lenin Park, recently reopened with new Chinese equipment, already shows a good part of it out of operation due to breakage, while those that can be operated force you to wait a long time in endless lines. The Old Havana Amphitheater, popularly known as the Park of the Inflatables, with its mechanical equipment in the surrounding areas, only opens on weekends, in addition to the proverbial deterioration of much of the necessary facilities and the requisite crowds in order to gain access to it. I would not be able to describe in words the plight of the Zoo at 26th Avenue, and the most miserable condition of its animals; it is one of the most depressing and stinky places anyone can imagine. The National Aquarium, for its part, is hardly worth mentioning, a boring place, damaged and dirty. Finally, last Tuesday the 28th I took my grandson to Jalisco Park; almost all the scarce machines were broken, the few wrecks that “were working”, such as the carousel of maimed and peeling horses, squeak extremely loudly, or the cars have loose seats; everything is awful, outdated and sad beyond repair, like a burlesque and small-scale copy of the society around it.

Most painful of all is to see, in spite everything, the strong need for the little princes to be happy: César laughs from his unpainted and crooked horsies. All around him other children of different ages also laugh joyfully, they shout and wave their hands as they go by their caretakers at each turn of the carousel. For them, the grayness, dirt, decay and deterioration of the surroundings are a natural part of life, the everyday. If we do nothing to change that, these little amusement beggars will come to conceive ruins as legitimate, and tomorrow that lack of worth will be part of themselves.

Read Full Post »

I just learned that several hotels, including the Meliá Cohiba and Meliá Santiago, have restricted the access of Cubans to the Internet. The news, completely true, which might surprise someone from outside the Island, is nothing unusual for those of us who live inside this black hole. This measure was not enacted lightly or by chance: it’s been known for months that the Cuban government is working to sabotage the individual initiative that independent bloggers have developed to defy official censorship, and that we have begun to penetrate, little by little, increasingly wide sectors of Cuban society.

First came the website desdecuba.com, blocked by the authorities; then the methods were systematic harassment through tracking the bloggers, police citations and direct or indirect threats. Far from stopping the blogger movement, it made it grow, the number of Cubans interested in creating their own digital space and fighting back against censorship grew, and the new Voces Cubanas portal was born, a platform housing a great variety of blogs administered from the Island. In recent months we’ve seen the beginning of bridges that have started to show, in spite of the monolithic totalitarian Cuban system, communicating sectors of a nascent independent civil society beyond the control of the government: something much more dangerous for the dictatorship than their own opposition parties. To accentuate the situation, international public opinion and a good representation of Cubans living abroad have shown their solidarity and support for the blogger phenomenon of the island.

Various niches of society within the Island are also questioning today’s Cuban reality and have started to break through the iron wall of fear and censorship. The performance of Tania Bruguera during the recent Havana Biennial, the alternative launch of Orlando Luis’s book at the last book fair, the mention obtained by the controversial and satirical short “Tormenta de Ideas” in the Gibara Low Budget Film Festival, are clear signs that these are new times and every day there are more groups pressing for urgent changes in Cuba. Now we Cubans here on the Island are making ourselves heard from our own official spaces, while the Internet—almost the only space that doesn’t belong to Castro—is the ideal vehicle for disseminating ideas and opinions and creating forums for public debate.

The regime knows this, so this time they have appealed to certain foreign firms engaged with the government, those who earn fat profits and extensive privileges flirting with the native landowners, to launch a kind of trial balloon: if the public meekly accepts the shady Castro-Meliá deal the limited opportunities that Cubans have to access the Internet will be gradually reduced until they disappear. This is just the tip of the iceberg of a censorship that would have adverse consequences for the nascent Cuban civil society. It’s essential, then, that we appeal once more for international solidarity to denounce this new move by the Cuban government which will do all that is necessary to avoid an outbreak on the Island of the worst pandemic that could befall the dictatorship: freedom of expression.

Read Full Post »