Archive for February, 2011

While in Egypt hundreds of thousands of people decided the fate of their country by speaking out through strong and sustained public protests against a 30-year dictatorship, in a local Havana setting a dispute was being resolved by a diametrically opposite philosophy dictated by survival: the battle for the potato. The comments might seem like a joke, but they are about completely real facts that I was a witness to.

The location was the farmers market adjacent to Parque Trillo, a popular geographical site in Centro Habana. The actors were crowds of Cubans eager to acquire the favored root vegetable, virtually absent from stall counters since they were “liberated” — that is taken off the ration system through the announced process of state subsidies — while the plot was the bitter fights to negotiate the 10 pounds allocated to each buyer after standing on line for three hours, and all the pushing and shoving they had to endure before leaving with their valued purchase.

The incidents took place just over two weeks ago, when the potato distribution began at 18 locations allocated for their sale in the capital, and Havana’s population threw themselves after those potatoes as if it were the freedom conquest. As far as I could ascertain, the mentioned location in Centro Habana has been one of the most chaotic and crowded. The line was over one block long, and it was made up by a human mass in complete disarray, struggling to get ahead and cut the line in any way possible, which resulted in knocking down and trampling over several people, including some elderly persons, plus a fight that led to the intervention of several police patrols and one vehicle to stop the more combative. There were broken bones, contusions and lacerations.

In subsequent days, each truckload of potatoes has been followed immediately by law enforcement officials trying to prevent the fights from escalating. It is common, starting in the morning, to see how the more disciplined begin to line up, waiting to see if the desired tuber arrives, “just in case”. People are resigned to wait for hours, taking turns to hold their place in line, and patrolling the area until the awaited truck appears, if it decides to appear. This is the level of misery of spirit a great part of the population has allowed themselves to be reduced to. This explains how it is possible for a social explosion for freedom to occur in the most arid geography in this planet, while in a fertile tropical island, people hit and hurt each other over 10 pounds of potatoes. Can you perceive the “subtle” difference?

However, despite the sad spectacle, I allow myself some hope. I detected it in many other Cubans I saw come by the place, look reprovingly, almost with disgust, at the scene, and leave outraged. Many say they prefer to choke on yams than to undergo the humiliation of fighting other people over some potatoes. “Shame!” lamented an old man, “Never in my life have I seen such a slaughter over a few pounds of produce! How far are they going to drag us?!”

“As far as we let them, grandpa”, I responded. And I was surprised by the immediate support I got from most of the onlookers gathered across the street.

18 February 2011

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Short Trip Down Memory Lane

Recently, a friend and regular reader of our blog made a comment about a very controversial post in which he argued that the Mariel migration was triggered by the fact that “two Cubans launched a bus against an embassy in Havana.” In effect, that action was the public and visible event, but in any case, in my opinion, his approach, alluding to such a critical and controversial event in Cuba’s history in the last 50 years, tends to simplify an event marked by deep political connotations whose climax was the exodus of a quarter of a million Cubans.

That is why I decided to dedicate a special post to the subject, without attempting to exhaust the many complexities involved. It turns out that I was 20 by then, and these events marked a decisive turning point in my life, so they are sharply etched in my memory. The Mariel Boatlift was actually the last in a sequence of events that begun with talks between the Island’s government and a group of Cuban émigrés, agreements which took place during the Carter administration in the late 70’s, which led to the opening of travel for Cubans residing in the US to visit Cuba — popularly known as “Community Trips” — under which, relatives from either side of the Florida Straits could be reunited, after being long separated due to the politics of demonization which up to that point the Cuban government had maintained against the émigrés.

It is possible that some of my readers won’t agree with me, but I am willing to bet that when he accepted these discussions, F. Castro had underestimated their political cost. For the first time in 20 years the government was inconsistent, and those that until then had been “worms”, people without a country, pro-imperialists or traitors — epithets the revolutionaries used to describe the émigrés — were now returning as born-again, revalued and re-christened as “our brothers of the Cuban community abroad”, by the grace of a speech of the leader of the Revolution himself. Automatically, without the benefit of logic or explanation, maintaining relationships with family members who had left the country was no longer censured. Moreover, the re-encounter was blessed and we could jubilantly welcome them into our homes once again. Many began to discover that we had been scammed, and it became clear that the discredit towards emigration had been a clever manipulation of government policy.

Family ties that should be — and in fact, are — the most natural thing in the world, acquired for Cubans a special connotation due not only to the split between those who were leaving and those remaining in Cuba that had often marked irreconcilable antagonisms, but also because on this shore, for two decades, power had woven its ideological supremacy based on the rejection of certain values considered “decadent” and “representative of a dehumanized dead society” which were now returning under the guise of consumer goods brought as presents by the émigrés to their impoverished relatives on the Island. All of a sudden, Cubans here found out that their “northern” relatives, without communism, marches, voluntary work, without slogans or speeches, were more prosperous, better off, and had more possibilities for professional and personal success. The New Man, with his ugly khaki pants and stiff boots for the sugar cane fields, staggered first, and then fell before the charms of the consumer society. Jeans and sneakers, the greatest expressions of the “ideological diversionism” — a doctrine that hung like a guillotine over the head of any young person on the Island — were stronger than the Marxism-Leninism manuals that cluttered our heads in schools, and faith in the system underwent its first major fissure.

In 1980, the death of Cuban guard Pedro Ortiz Cabrera during the Peruvian Embassy events in Havana was the perfect excuse Fidel Castro needed. The incident occurred just when the government needed to create and nurture a situation at all costs that allowed it to self-retract, strengthen the patriotic discourse and fortify itself in the figure of confrontation against the external enemy. It became urgent to inject a strong dose of patriotism into the people, and for that, Carter’s conciliatory and friendly spirit had to be bombarded, mainly by creating an artificial crisis. It was urgent to offer the world an image of a Cuba perversely manipulated by the common enemy of all the peoples, which, with its siren’s song, encouraged delinquents and made the biggest softies, the ones “in hiding” and the false revolutionaries change their course. And so it was that, right after the event, guards at the embassy of Peru in Havana were withdrawn, which was broadcast intentionally through the media so that the “new worms” grouped under the epithet of “scum” (who shortly after would once again be “brothers of the community” and would come back to visit Cuba) could have access to the embassy grounds.

I don’t think even Castro himself was able to imagine the enormity of the masses that in just 72 hours swamped the Peruvian Embassy, let alone, when the Mariel-Miami route was opened, that the number of Cubans willing to emigrate would multiply exponentially. His surprise was translated into a furious indignation that seemed to have no limits. His speeches were more aggressive, bitter and angrier than ever before, only now it was directed against many who, until then, had been our dear friends, our neighbors of a lifetime or our fellow students, so the message lost its legitimacy. The revolutionary dream of a nurtured generation of youth born between the 1950’s and 60’s had broken. The age of innocence had ended and we would never be the same again.

Linked to the whole course of discussions-émigrés’ visits-events at the Embassy of Peru-Mariel exodus, were other associated phenomena, that happened simultaneously and affected the social psychology within Cuba, such as, for example, that which is known under the name Consciousness Study Process –- a purge that in 1980 expelled from the ranks of the Young Communist League and the Cuban Communist Party those who did not obey the requirements that communist model dictated, were suspected of “diversionism” or questioned the dogma; the shameful repudiation meetings, which publicly highlighted the essence of the fascist regime, and the so-called Combative People’s Marches, created to demonstrate the commitment of the people toward their government.

Castro assimilated the teachings of those events and managed to use them to his advantage: he broke the process of becoming close with a country that was more useful to him as his enemy, he opened an escape valve to relieve tensions within Cuba through the exodus of tens of thousands of Cubans, and he managed to reinforce terror in the population through the powerful repressive machinery disguised as “the angry people” trained to dole out beatings to the defenseless who dared to express the least displeasure or to even an intent to leave the country. Similarly, from abroad, it reinforced the support of the USSR and the socialist camp, and the Cuban government was able to improve the living conditions of the population, to some extent, with the creation that same year of the parallel market that widened significantly the supply of consumer goods and the emergence of non-state agricultural markets, which also elevated the food possibilities. The short years of false socialist prosperity were being born, just before the end of the Eastern Europe regime.

Apart from this account, I remind the reader friend who inspired these memories in me that the demonstrations of those years were never explicitly against the government, but in favor of emigration. It is true that a mass migration like the one that took place then is the most tangible expression of a peoples’ discontent in relation to their government, but none of those 200 thousand Cubans thought for a moment to concentrate all that critical mass in front of the Government Palace to demand the rights and opportunities they wished for, none shouted “down with the Castro dictatorship”. And there wasn’t — as there isn’t now — political or civic will in the Cuban people capable of changing the status quo. Such is our character, like it or not, which is why it is crucial to help create civic consciousness as soon as possible.

I agree that the current conditions in this country can cause any event, however insignificant it may seem, to trigger a popular revolt; I don’t know to what point it could become a massive uprising. We are approaching a real dead-end from which not even the government tricks could get us out of. Today, Cuba needs a miracle that I, in spite of everything, believe possible. I also hope that miracle occurs through peaceful means and that the new generations, free from the doctrines that slowed their ancestors (our parents and us), are the renewing power of a future Cuba. It is true that no one can predict when and how changes will occur, but if they are unleashed through feelings of hatred, revenge and violence, we would only aggravate the present and dangerously compromise our future as a nation.

Our dear reader can consider himself privileged in that he was able to experience an exceptional process in his country, since conditions were very different to ours — despite our cultural similarities marked by history — Francisco Franco, “Leader of Spain by the grace of God”, who failed to remove the republican sentiments in Spain despite the outcome of the bloody Civil War, died quietly his hospital bed, sickly and at a very old age, just as his Caribbean counterpart will surely die. The Spanish were lucky that Franco was not as long-lived as Castro. In Spain, unlike Cuba, at the time of the dictator’s disappearance, there were –- as always — owners, social classes with well-defined interests, opposition (including the Communists), civil society and an emblematic figure, Prince Juan Carlos — supported by Franco himself to counter the republican spirit — with enough intelligence and will to foster strong leadership to an agreed transition. All of this prevented a bloodbath.

Our situation is different. Politics in Cuba have historically been decided by a chosen few elite groups; Cuban people, by nature, have always rejected politics and have resigned themselves (settled for?) to having others carry it out for them. Since 1959, Castro took care to dispel any vestiges of citizenship and to crush any semblance of independent thought, annulled the economic capability of society and reduced individuals to the status of “mass.” He had on his side the proverbial political apathy of Cubans and a curiously infantile enthusiasm for leaders and revolts. It is thus that almost all popular manifestation of nonconformity in the past half a century have been reduced to escaping the country (let’s remember, for instance, the “Maleconazo” and the boat people crisis of 1994) and not to even ask for political reforms or changes. If only a few thousand Cuban felt their civic duty we would not have the dubious distinction of carrying on our shoulders and minds a half a century-old dictatorship. The end of the Cuban dictatorship is near, I don’t doubt that, but I am afraid that the new nation’s labor is going to be a slow and extremely painful one.

22 February 2011

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Agent Clone Lectures

Model of Computer Sciences University (UCI), home of the trolls. Image taken from the UCI site.

Sterilized, depersonalized, inexpressive, emotionless, difficult to describe: that’s the image of the teacher of the Ministry of Interior officials circulating lately through a video conference, mysteriously leaked and quickly spread through the networks. The figure distantly brings to mind that French movie villain of the 1960s, Fantomas, eternal antagonist of the late comedian Louis de Funes in a saga of intrigue and persecution that delighted the kids of my generation.

Sure, I liked that Fantomas, the authentic one; not this sadly blurred copy who with his coarse language, extreme poverty of vocabulary and uninhibited vulgarity, tries to present a lecture on computer technology to a group in uniform that, bored and yawning, tries to maintain expressions of serious interest amid the tacky verbal diarrhea of the “prof.” So as not to profane the memory of Fantomas, I’ve decided to call this plagiarizing imposter The Clone.

Almost all readers have seen the celebrated video, available on several sites that have identified the pathetic puppet of the day with name and surname, year of graduation, speciality and other details. Ergo, The Clone exists, is real, which, I confess, I find surprising. People with much more expertise in the details of technology than I, have already commented about the crazy string of fabrications the “specialist” spins and have offered evidence of his clear intention to demonize the alternative blogosphere, mainly through attacks on its most recognized figure, Yoani Sanchez. Nothing new. But some of the details are of interest and lead to certain inferences, if the material in the presentation is genuine. For example:

It shows that these officials-cum-disciples have not the slightest knowledge of communications technology in the information age, rather scandalous if–to judge from The Clone’s verbal dysentery–they must be prepared for “a dynamic of permanent war” where “the Internet is the battlefield.” Clearly they have already lost the war.

It shows that the government not only lies to the Cuban people with the greatest audacity, misrepresenting reality, but that they unmercifully unload on their own officials charged with State security.

It establishes–building on the experiences of the Orange Revolution and especially the Iranian Green Revolution–that the permanence of the system, the government and the Revolution are hanging by a thread: the bloggers or any young troublemaker with “uncontrolled” access to the social networks could generate a conflict. That is, the outbreak of conflicts could prove that the Olive-Green legend doesn’t depend on sociopolitical reality, but on the possibility of access to Twitter, Facebook or YouTube, which says a lot about the supposed strength of the Revolutionary process, of popular will to defend the Revolution, and the absence of real links with the country’s youth.

It recognizes that the United States government has the perverse intention of “permitting a free flow of information between Cuban citizens and the world.”

Cuban immigrants in the United States “are trying to present a new face,” so they have proposed a scholarship program for young people on the Island with the purpose of educating them in the latest information science technologies. Therefore, the Cuban government’s response was strong and highly characteristic of its wisdom: Don’t let the young people out.

Several months after the tirade, however, we are still waiting for the army of bloggers, mentally bound and uniformed by the Ministry of the Interior, to emerge victoriously on the battlefield and crush us with their technology and arguments. Apparently their standard-bearers, such as Yohandry Fontana and his feminine version, Tina Modotti–who despite having the full support of the majestic power dare not post under their own names and faces–haven’t turned out to be very convincing. They don’t really rank, the truth being that the charm of blogging lies in the purest exercise of freedom of expression.

We could carry on at length about this extraordinary display of failure, but I don’t think it’s worth the trouble. I’m sure that readers have more opinions than I mention here. I could almost be thankful for some of the touches of comedy in the video, for example when The Clone sucks up to Chavez with his ridiculous flattery (“Chavez doesn’t look like anybody,” he says with delight and admiration). Thank God! I’d like to add. I don’t believe the earth could bear the weight of another such specimen. And here The Clone allows himself an anecdote with tender detail: the Venezuelan president, Twitterer par excellence with an overwhelming half million followers on the site, responds to calls for help from his people through the social networks and assigns his subordinates the task of meeting the demands of the population.

Perhaps this explains why the little Castro brothers don’t open Twitter accounts… They would collapse in the first minutes faced with the accumulation of demands from Cubans.

February 15, 2011

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Demonstrations in Egypt. Photo from the Internet

Sometimes it is hard to calculate how far the media can achieve fictional expectations. The process for popular uprisings that has been taking place in some North African countries against their dictatorial governments, particularly the prolonged protests that continue to occur in Egypt, have inevitably brought to the foreground the case of Cuba, which sadly holds the record of having the longest dictatorship in the Western Hemisphere. Thus, the hopes of an undetermined number of Cubans abroad have been stirred into believing that the moment has come (it’s now or never!) to convene a peaceful people’s uprising within the Island.

The strongest proposal seems to come from two Cubans residing in Europe, who have launched a call for the uprising, which would presumably start between February 19th and 26th, advertised by them through social networking sites (Facebook or Twitter). The commotion the proposal has caused in the media interested in the Cuban situation, primarily in Florida, but also in some areas in Europe, forces us to reflect on the issue. The time is right to establish certain considerations that, without a doubt, will not be shared by the most avid “pro-uprising” groups.

Let’s discreetly review how questionable it is to call for civil demonstrations in Cuba from abroad, given that the masterminds (or “cyber-messiahs,” as befits the information age) have not given us their confirmation that they will land in Cuba to place themselves at the head of the imaginary uprising; ergo, we would contribute the bulk of the massacred bodywork here. Readers who have placed their faith in this new “now’s the time!” that has arrived from afar, forgive me, but if the matter were not this serious, it would even be laughable. Just look a few small details, like the fact that there is virtually no Internet access in Cuba or that not too many Cubans have access to social networks. This makes it almost impossible for the democratic liberation to start via the virtual channels, through the use of computers — or perhaps simply through cell phones — by today’s experienced cyber-leaders of ours.

Let’s also make obvious a trivial circumstance (I am referring to our orphan internet), let’s politely suppose that uprising orders came, even if — in a fit of mambí* nostalgia — it was rolled into a cigar, and let’s analyze its impact objectively, not from the standpoint of our wishes and hopes, but from the Cuban context. It is true that practically all conditions exist in Cuba to produce a social explosion: persistence of a dictatorship in power for over 50 years, permanent economic crisis as a result of the failure of the imposed system, high majority of the population surviving in that precarious balance between poverty and misery, loss of faith in government, uncertainty about a potentially devastating future, and all the rest which almost every one of us knows. Paradoxically, in our country, the absence of demonstrations is not due to the conditions that exist, but to those that DO NOT EXIST and are critical:

– We do not have independent civil society organizations capable of coordinating an uprising of this kind in Cuba.

– The Cuban people, ignorant even of their squalid rights and generally apathetic, are helpless against the repressive machinery of a system trained in resistance to retain power, possessor of an efficient repressive apparatus, of the mass media experienced in misrepresentation. Thus, there isn’t an effective vehicle for weaving, in the short term, a citizen network able to paralyze the country and force the government not even to abdicate, but to just negotiate in search of a pact. This is so true that there are still almost a dozen political prisoners remaining in Cuba who should have been released since this past November under the government’s commitment.

– Contrary to what happens in Egypt, to name the most conspicuous example, in Cuba there is no known opposition program able to present effective resistance against the government (this resistance transformed into positive action). In the case of an uprising, opposition parties in our country cannot offer the people a modicum of social order guarantees nor agreement proposals that address the broader interests to push for change towards democracy.

– The Cuban people, the vast majority of whom does not know the opposition parties, their members, or their platforms (in those cases when they have them), nor has the work of independent journalists and bloggers been sufficiently disseminated through the Island to influence the opinion of “the masses.” No wonder the government keeps a tight monopoly on the media.

– There isn’t even a set of popular claims, properly structured or at least rooted in the social spectrum, capable of bringing together a critical mass of different social sectors willing to face the consequences of a supposedly peaceful rebellion.

Looking at other considerations, it is more likely that, in our case, the ranks of the “rebels” will be nourished by some of the opponents and dissidents in general, who represent the limited sector truly determined to confront the authorities, which would give government a golden opportunity to lock them up on a charge of “attempting to subvert” or some other similar charge, and thus weaken the resistance cells inside the country. It would be a devastating blow to the nascent independent civil society in a time when disgruntled sectors of the population are increasing, when spontaneous popular consensus on the need for change is beginning to emerge, and the breeding ground needed to guide these feelings of frustration and dissatisfaction towards democratic gains for the Cubans begins to form.

We could cite many other circumstances that threaten the success of this controversial “peaceful” uprising, such as the long accumulated resentment in society, the result of policy differentiation, mutual surveillance, betrayal, and mistrust among Cubans, which this regime has systematically planted for over a half a century. A popular revolt in Cuba, without known civic forces or a mass media that would control by calling to order (as the Polish, and even the Rumanian process fortunately had) surely would lead to violence, settling of scores, looting and destruction similar to what took place during the Haitian Revolution 200 years ago, with the subsequent final destruction and possibly the end of a Nation. Because it would end in that: a rebellion of runaway, blinded slaves without direction; the condition to which the dictatorship has reduced us by virtue of the proverbial indifference of generations of Cubans. There currently isn’t any reason to feel superior to Haitians of that era; and we don’t have the solid national civic tradition of the Polish or the self-esteem and awareness of the Egyptians, able to protect, in the midst of protests and violence stemming from clashes between rival groups, the treasures of their rich historical and cultural heritage.

This does not mean that social upheaval is not possible in Cuba. Unfortunately, reality indicates that the country is heading towards a dangerous point of impact. It is no coincidence that some pockets of rebellion in specific regions have already been brewing. These are the first practical signs of general nonconformity that will worsen as the government’s layoff plan, the elimination of “subsidies” and other problems that can already be perceived over the medium-short term scenario. It is no accident that the government is intensely preparing anti-riot forces equipped with new weapons and newly acquired techniques.

In spite of all this, I am one of those who insist on seeking peaceful and negotiated solutions to conflicts. I believe we must keep the pressure on the system flaws, build bridges with sectors that favor organized changes, take advantage of the weaknesses of the system and seek to expand civic spaces as much as possible, because, without people, no democratic change in Cuba will be possible or permanent. In this, Cubans living abroad in democracy and those of us who have found freedom inside ourselves will play an important role. Someone once said, brilliantly, that there are only losers in war. I would add that there are only winners in dialogues and negotiations.

Translator’s note: Mambí is probably derived from an indigenous word meaning the rebellion against the chiefs living in hiding in the forests. Spanish soldiers, noticing similar tactics of the revolutionaries in the use of machetes, started to refer to them as “men of Mambí”, later shortened to mambís. (www.wikipedia.com, Spanish edition)

February 11, 2011

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News without newness

One of the characteristics of the scandal unleashed late last year by the website WikiLeaks is the frequency with which certain developments that should not be a news flash for anyone are revealed. Simultaneously, an idea seems to be enthroned that tends to overestimate the importance of this site as the information legitimizer. Something like saying that “if it came out in WikiLeaks, is true,” which means the birth of a sort of absolute cyber-dictatorship for informational truth: the substitution of a monopoly (the mainstream media, which WikiLeaks claims to fight) by the monopoly of a supposed “freedom of information” which, in fact, tends to advocate anarchy.

Paradoxically, it is said that the Spanish newspaper El País “has exclusive rights on information filtered by Julián Assange’s Web.” Could it be that this is a free exclusivity deal by virtue of a freedom of expression defense turned offering? Why would a major media, the Spanish language newspaper with the largest circulation, be the repository of filtered “firsts”?

As for me, among the cables published by such a site that somehow make reference to Cuba, I have not found any new news items. I think I am not mistaken if I declare that most Cubans do not need the new defender of published news reports of the US Interests Section in Havana to find out, through its former representative, Michael Parmly, that “corruption in Cuba has become a widespread phenomenon that reaches both the Communist Party leadership and professionals without political affiliation.”

Other cables reaffirm the same, detailing aspects of Cuban life that have been reported by independent journalists and alternative bloggers for a long time, such as “corrupt practices, including bribery, misappropriation of state resources and accounting shenanigans, including purchased jobs for hundreds or thousands of dollars that will later spin off copious interchanges of influence.” We are well aware of that social cancer metastasis, corruption, that has even invaded the police, one of the most affected sectors; but it is absolutely present in every niche of national life. Even the comandante himself, the generator of the Cuban National Disaster, acknowledged in 2005 that the revolution could implode because of the great corruption that exists on the Island. He stated it much later than the independent press. WikiLeaks, through El País, merely sanctifies through the mouthpiece of a foreign official what many honest Cubans –- many of whom are in prison because of it — have denounced in the first place and, more recently, as if to conjure old faults, it has been acknowledged even by the olive green gerontocracy and its most reverent acolytes.

Among the latest of the retro-exclusive news flashes that the site of the famous Julián Assange has regaled us with these last few days is Parmly’s own communication that contains “confidential information” provided to him by Vilmar Coutinho, a Brazilian who in turn received it from the Brazilian foreign minister Celso Amorim (what a mess!). According to the “revealing” communication, the latter “had a talk with Raúl Castro” in which the General declared “that he had no intention of doing away with the white card” — the travel permit required to leave the country — because “that would produce a mass exodus,” whose host country would be fundamentally Mexico, which “would harm bilateral relations” between Cuba and that country.

Thank you, WikiLeaks! But we Cubans already knew that the white card is one of the government’s more lucrative diabolical “milking” mechanisms. As a Cuban-American economist coined it, the “emigration industry” produces juicy dividends for the Cuban government, at no cost whatsoever, and the famous little card is one of its sources. The so-called white card, which allows native Cubans to exit the country costs only 150 CUC, and it can be obtained, in the first instance, only through the corresponding letter of invitation from abroad, paid to the Cuban government in hard currency, with the exception of those who have obtained their Spanish citizenship, who need no letter at all to go to Spain, though they still need their white card. Add to that the application for a regular passport which has a price of 55 CUC. Considering the large and continuing flow of Cubans to immigration offices to perform procedures related to this, it is easy to calculate that the amount of income generated could be, at least, in the order of hundreds of thousands annually. Add to that the monthly rent required to be paid to the Cuban consulates abroad by Cubans who left only temporarily and expect to return to the Island. That is why the General could not eliminate the white card, not because a supposed massive exodus to Mexico (more like the United States, the main and dreamed-of destination of almost all Cubans aspiring to escape). The cynicism of the General when recognizing the possibility of a “mass exodus” is not a WikiLeaks news flash either.

I could cite other examples, but that would be to extend myself in vain. I agree with those who have found only a great source of old gossip in the controversial site. If you look closely, it is only useful for fleeting chitchat, and to show that the Internet also has that dark and sinister side that that puts issues under a microscope that perhaps should remain in some office files and drawers. Apparently, for media that thrives on scandal, the personalities implicated in the gossip are more important than the news itself. Personally, I’m not very interested in revelations after the fact, unless they have the purpose of amending errors, an issue that is beyond the scope of a mere mortal like Assange. Nor does it seem ethical to me to advocate the collapse of a site –- be it official, famous, or not — as some cyber-fundamentalists have done to avenge the attack to the new idol, because I defend freedom of speech in its universality. As an independent blogger living in a dictatorship, I know what it feels like when an absolute power blocks that right.

I don’t know what WikiLeaks proposes to do ultimately; perhaps it is only about good intentions gone wrong. Maybe my assessments take me beyond a critique, but my readers know I am not complacent, and I hope that they can clarify some of my doubts. I count on that. As for the referenced website, I think so much internet talent could continue, though based on better causes (he’s done it before), and promoting the free flow of information in areas where there are serious access restrictions, while respecting the right to privacy. Freedom should not be synonymous with chaos. The WikiLeaks experience is, in my opinion, one more demonstration of the human capacity to deal ethically with technological advances, just like it has happened so many times before in history. And forgive me, readers, if this seems like an old fashioned presumption, but sometimes what we call “information” is nothing but stupidization disguised as news.

February 3, 2011

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Note: This work was originally written for and published in Voices magazine #5, in January, 2011.

I want to start with a statement of principle absolutely rigorous and rigorously true: I respect the religious beliefs of all people anywhere in the world. The second statement I will make is as vertical and solid as the first: I reserve the right to question certain aspects of magical or religious practices when they cause me doubt — whether motivated by my own ignorance or by the nature and consequences of such practices — and I also claim my legitimate right to publicly expose what I think in that respect. An agnostic of my own doing, and anthropologist by training, man himself, beyond creeds or doubts, is most important to me. That said, I will address the issue.

Throughout history, mankind has always been tempted to decipher the future, and each culture has, at one time or another, in some way, succumbed to it. From the very beginning, primitive cave dwellers consulted the stars, the entrails of animals, and even trees and stones; they devoutly painted rustic cave walls with beautiful drawings and practiced propitiatory rites to enable the arrival and establishment of prosperity and good times. Several millennia have transpired since we supposedly left “barbarism” behind us and since the rise of “civilization”. Those years were a hard journey for humanity, and the inspiration for the oracle was ever-present. To date, the practice of predicting events for self-preservation, protection against them, or the conjuring of threats remains and attracts millions of people from the widest spectrum of creeds and cultures across the globe. To claim that the techno-scientific development achieved by humankind has displaced the magical practices of oracular character is nothing short of pedantry by the more educated: inside, man is still as superstitious as when he inhabited caves, and almost as ignorant, with apologies to cavemen. In fact, today, some oracles are available online, in what might seem, at first glance, the inversion of the equation: technology at the service of superstition.

Thus, no society, no matter how highly developed or sophisticated, has abandoned that universal tradition of divination. Regardless of the vehicle used for the prophetic ritual — whether the Tarot, the I-chin, the Horoscope or any other means — the fascination of peeping into a future subject to the enigma of a predetermined supra-human Destiny seems to defy time. And no wonder. Man is the only living being aware of his mortality, of his ephemeral character, and of his very weaknesses, which transforms Destiny into one of the most tempting mysteries in human existence.

However, from a certain point of view, concerns about the future – despite its romantic halo, a mixture of mystery, magic and enchantment — is not but a manifestation of a deep practical sense: to know what will happen allows us to optimize our brief stay in this world. And, without a doubt, the most practical of all men were, and still are, the wizards… the prophets; because they, as the occasional interpreters of arcane symbols, have others not just believe they possess superior gifts to probe the secrets of the future, but they actually have the ability to influence the will of large sectors of human societies, and to benefit from it.

Cuba, prophecies of survival

The magic substrate of prophecies is well cultivated in religion. In all of them there are omens, predictions, miracles, and even spells that can’t all be listed here. Universal mythology in the generic sense, with its fascinating poetic charge, has planted images, parables and traditions in the cultures of humankind. Cuba, a country with a peculiar religious syncretism, is no exception. The uneven and never clearly defined mixture of Spanish-inherited Catholic religion, the complex animist beliefs of African heritage, and certain magical-religious vestiges of our extinct indigenous cultures, characterized by ancestor worship — as fundamental components of this syncretism — seems to imprint in a large part of Cuban society a sort of natural predisposition to religiosity, a predisposition that has grown exponentially in recent years, marked by deepening shortages, the loss of values, and the urgent search for solutions.

Sociology and history indicate that religious practices –- like the people who profess them — parallel their eras. The sign of “anything goes” that characterizes permanence in a precarious state of survival has empowered Cuban spirituality to the point that many people look for hope and reason simultaneously in every niche of faith. All faiths are worthy when envisioning a personal solution to the crisis, so it is not difficult to find one individual in settings as diverse as a mass at the Cathedral, in consultation with a fortuneteller or at the trays of Ifá. Rosaries, runes, cards and seashells might be the barricade that will protect against the evils that could launch their attacks from any corner.

In the midst of such kaleidoscopic magic-religious outlook, the predictions of the Letter of the Year, a tradition of remote Nigerian origins, beliefs greatly diminished in Africa under the overwhelming Protestant push first and then by the Muslims, paradoxically has been gaining popularity in Cuba, some attracted by the momentum of sincere faith, others by the need to find a glimmer of hope, and all seeking a sign of a future being made ever more uncertain by circumstances.

However, as a phenomenon peculiar to this society and this time, not even the Letter of the Year can escape the unwritten rules that survival and uncertainty impose. There are many contradictions hidden behind a ritual ceremony that — perhaps unintentionally — reflects in part the same original vices than those of a society seeking to make predictions. To begin, each year, two Letters are disclosed in Cuba: one published by the Cuban Council of Elder Priests of Ifá, a consortium whose headquarters is a large house located on Prado, opposite the Parque de la India, in the capital, openly worshiped, recognized and protected by the Cuban authorities to serve their political interests, and one that is spread by the Organizing Committee of the Letter of the Year “Miguel Febles Padrón”, declared “independent” and made available from a modest temple-house in the Diez de Octubre Municipality in Havana, where every year many babalawos* get together and who, this time – according to statements in the printed document that they published — had “the support of the Priests of Ifá, of all the families in Cuba, and of their descendants in the world”, which in itself contradicts the fact that there are two independent predictions within the same religion.

On the other hand, the universal character that the priests of Ifá declare for their oracles causes inconsistencies in its credibility by releasing such general predictions that result in predictable events, without consulting any divination tray. I will return briefly to this point a little later.

Other elements to consider are the predictions themselves, taking into account annual sequences, the events of social interest that they forecast, the recommendations they make, etc., as well as the compliance or lack thereof of the previous years’ Letters; the intelligibility of their sayings and the ambiguity and vagueness of their language, among other key issues. I am referring to the independent nature attributed to the Letter dictated by the Organization Committee based at the Diez de Octubre Municipality location, avoiding, as far as possible, the contaminating official stench that could emanate from the other one.

For example, the Letters published in 2005 and 2007 are identical in many of their contents. The sections that were dedicated to serious diseases, events of social interest, statute’s axioms, and almost all the recommendations, were literally copied from the former to the latter. Two years, that, however, turned out to be quite different from each other in many ways, and right in the middle of which came Fidel Castro’s momentous proclamation (2006) delegating power to his brother and a small committee of characters holding high government positions who were, among others, three of the ousted acolytes of today. If a message about this was stated in the January 2006 Letter, it had to be very cryptic, because no one discovered it among predictions, recommendations and maxims.

Needless to say that some other elements in the Letter of the Year are pure garbage. The announcement of “the death of older people and public figures in culture and politics” that has appeared in one of the last letters is really obsolete, though most fans insist that the deaths of several elderly historic Cubans were announced by the board of Ifá and its interpreters, the babalawos. Predicting the likelihood of death for elderly or public figures of culture and politics “who are around 80 years old or have crossed that threshold — especially when it is known that many officials in high positions are old men engaged to that nomenclature — is not only an immature absurdity, but it makes a mockery of people’s intelligence. The announcement of “power struggles” also seems like a dramaturgical job, in light of the forced retirement of the senile commander.

We don’t have to shake any seashells to “guess” that the interests accumulated by the ruling class for over half a century will inexorably lead to bitter conflicts between the different tendencies that inevitably exist in the ruling elite as soon as the unifying ruler of those historical forces stepped down from the presidential recliner. The numerous purges that have taken place in recent years are a reflection of the realignment of forces that emerge from these conflicts, which, in the long run, will possibly delineate the political landscape that will host the long-awaited transitional changes.

The always ambiguous language used by the interpreters of Ifá allows each person to essentially fit the speech to his own liking, and to interpret whatever he might understand out of its convoluted and faulty syntax, especially when universal significance is given to its predicted effects. Rain, tsunamis, droughts, epidemics, war, military occupation, earthquakes, hurricanes and shipwrecks are omens that lose authenticity when applied generally to the whole planet; it is obvious that these are recurring events that invariably take place each year in one or other region on Earth. Shouldn’t Ifá be more specific in order to have his aid be more effective? Or is it his priests who do not interpret his predictions exactly? In my opinion, these limitations are caused by the effort to apply universal relevance to local-type religions, typical of lower stages of development.

The most recent one, the 2011 Letter of the Year, repeats the 2010 reigning symbol, it has Oggún (patron saint of blacksmiths and the military) as its regent divinity, which some Cubans have interpreted as a complacent acquiescence, or perhaps a friendly wink to General Raúl Castro. This year, the very handy threat of war, confrontation and “military intervention” is maintained, too much like the Cuban government’s discourse, overused and repeated ad nauseam, in order to keep the subjectivity of “the people” around an imaginary enemy attack. Shouldn’t Ifá be more creative? No, the priests will probably say that the Letter refers to events that will occur in other countries of the world.

It also seems a curious coincidence that, pursuant to the “renewal of the model” advocated by General Castro begun some time ago, with measures such as distribution of land in usufruct to the peasants, the 2011 Letter of the Year takes advantage to include in its recommendations “to absolutely restore or eliminate old political schemes to enjoy a new social order.” And with that, all is right with God and the Devil: change has been the popular outcry for years, as is, of late, the regime’s urgent need to retain power through a grace period. It would seem that, instead of proposing prophecies to lead us properly through life, the Ifá’s proposals, through his priests, keep us dependent on the rhythm of the official model, survival, and the vagaries of the system.

However, believers are struggling to find rationalization to support their faith and their hope of improving life among the ambiguities and detours of the year’s patakies**. That’s why, in contrast with the alleged universalism of the Ifá oracle, Cubans seek out even the slightest sign of progress for Cuba… and he who seeks will always find. This is influenced by not only the critical economic situation we’ve been mired in for a long time, but also by the chronic misinformation that the vast majority of Cubans are suffering from, dependent on the meager communication they receive from the strictly government-controlled media.

Contrary to what I discuss here, it could be argued that the Rule of OSA, the Ifismo, or anything related to traditions and principles of this religion do not indicate a political character, in fact, this is what many priests allege, but this is not fully adjusted to the truth. The religions of African origin have been as persecuted by the regime as all other religions, or even more so, given that their practices were largely demonized, their rituals had to be hidden, and their faithful belonged to the poorest and most marginalized levels of society. These circumstances, and the act of existing under a totalitarian government, lend a political edging to every element of social life in Cuba that religions cannot escape.

A priest’s views

Victor Betancourt himself, a babalawo who regularly participates in the ritual of the Letter of the Year Organizing Committee, has recently responded to questions addressed to him by several readers of Diario de Cuba, and recognizes what I would define as a lack of commitment to the predictions and their effects. According to Betancourt, in response to whether or not the prophecies of last year’s Letter came true, “it is very difficult to determine the accuracy of the predictions for those who don’t have within reach data sources, annual ephemeris, annual statistical data, etc. (…) therefore, I cannot ascertain if they were met or not”. In the same setting, Betancourt asks for reporters’ help to verify such compliance, since they are more informed than he is (and Ifá himself, I may add) about what is happening in the world. With this, Betancourt attributes a purely media character to the predictions and their effects.

In response to another reader, concerned about the final fate of Fidel Castro, this Ifá priest states that Castro (Fidel) “abides by the recommendations of Ifá” and that is why he hasn’t died. I remember, however, that Victor Betancourt dedicated a religious ritual to safeguard the life of the eminent commander when, in 2006, he was on the verge of death. He doesn’t seem to recognize any influence his prayers before Ifá had on that occasion, or possibly, he doesn’t want to create a stir on that chapter of his religious career. At any rate, for a priest, I am of the opinion that he lacks a smidgen of faith.

Nevertheless, we have to believe that his prayer for the longest-lived dictator of this hemisphere has no political character, or that his regret is sincere when he says that “many journalists’ questions are always directed at the policy of the revolutionary government and at the leader’s health. We always believed that if we stated publicly, as now, that diseases whose rates will increase are the pulmonary ones, we would be sending a direct message to the health ministers of all countries, as well as to health providers in that specialty who have all the recourses and finances to strengthen this sector. We thought it would be more plausible, before we let the prophecy reach the people with asthma, tuberculosis, etc.” For me, I cannot imagine that the Health Ministers in the UK, Canada or Sweden are waiting for the Letter of the Year and the recommendations of Ifá’s priests to come out to allocate the corresponding budgets and to map out the strategies of the case.

After the predictions, the realities

I must confess that, in recent years, I have shown interest in the Letter of the Year as a phenomenon that brings together a significant number of individuals. It awakens in me a curiosity to understand the motives of human spirituality. Believers or not, “just in case”, almost everyone asks at the beginning of January, “What did the Letter come out with this time? Who is in it? What does it predict?” without ever understanding that they are the ones who must find answers to the crisis of their own existence. Still, this is an event that doesn’t get too contaminated in the midst of this tense and expectant society: it doesn’t offer enough hope as to awaken a mobilizing expectation, it lacks the strong propensity to spark a flame. That is why it is astutely tolerated by the authorities.

But, beyond trickery, credos or incredulities, Cuba’s destiny is not exactly played out on Ifá’s tray. Oggún, the legendary warrior, is useless to me, as is Raúl Castro, myth of the warrior who never was. We Cubans need peace after warring against ourselves for half a century. Enough is enough.

With all due respect, without Ifá’s stone tablets, I can predict that the era of the dictatorship is nearing its end; that there will be changes, perhaps more than we can imagine; that we will finally have an imperfect democracy that will have to be polished for many more years; that tomorrow’s children will not have to swear that they will become like Ché… or even better, that they will not be Little Pioneers; that there will be a multi-party system; that we will have rights; that the remnants of totalitarianism will be swept away by the young and by future generations, that the road will be long and difficult; that we will have to continue to expose chiefs of state, the opportunistic, and the corrupt. The Orishas will not make this omen come true, we will. If Orishas finally decide to help us, all the better. As for me, don’t give me magic seashells… give me Internet.

Translator’s notes:
babalawo, meaning ‘father or master of the mysticism’ in the Yoruba language, is a title that denotes a Priest of Ifá. Ifá is a divination system that represents the teachings of the Orisha.
**Patakies: Myths and legends of the Yoruba religion.

January 31, 2011

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