Archive for June, 2011

The Pain of Others

Reina Luisa Tamayo. Photo taken from the Internet

On June 20 I received news that has caused me pain. I refer to what we call “the pain of others,” caused by the actions of others and that, involuntarily, moves one to feel a certain mix of compassion and shame for the protagonists.

The information, which came to me via a text message on my phone, literally says, “Federal congressional representatives will have Reina Luisa Tamayo appear before the U.S. Congress to ask for intensification of measures against Cuba.” I read it more than once, carefully, trying to understand what relationship there could be between a simply, barely educated Cuban with no experience in the in intricate vicissitudes of politics, a group of United States congressional representatives well-trained in the art of taking advantage of the situation.

Even more, by doubtful and miraculous virtue has Reina Luisa Tamayo suddenly been turned into the representative of request that can only serve the interests of a group of the most archaic and failed policy and that, what’s more, leads the Cuban government to justify and strengthen its belligerent position? How can they take this most humble of Cubans and demand something which — and they should know this — will reverberate precisely against the most humble of her compatriots and, incidentally, will offer a service so useful to the government of the Island?

I understand, as a mother, the grief this woman must feel after the terrible death of her son Orlando Zapata Tamayo. I can imagine and even understand that she feels hatred and anger against the regime that with such impunity left her child to die without offering to help him medically until his condition became irreversible.  With very little effort I can abstract from this that it is the government itself that should bear the costs of the process of emigration, including the passports and permissions to leave, for her and a dozen of her family members, as if that could compensate in some measure for the crime committed; and also — as absurd as if may seem to us — I have to recognize that she has the right to move the ashes of Zapata Tamayo, a Cuban martyr who belongs to us all, to a foreign land where he never was and to which he does not belong. After all, I think, perhaps she decided to have the consolation of being able to frequently place flowers near his beloved remains, and this is, without a doubt, a sacred right. No wonder she tried to visit her son’s tomb every Sunday, facing the repudiating mobs and also the uniformed police, bravely defying the beatings, the arrests, the threats and injuries.

So I’m surprised that now, as if she hadn’t already suffered enough, and now that she herself is safe from repression and will not have to suffer the consequences, Reina Luise has given in to such crude handling, aligning herself with the most radical and retrograde posture, and so offering such an exemplary service to the Cuban regime. I don’t know if, in some magical way, she has become a political figure, if for reasons unknown to me she has made some commitment to the radical sectors of the exile, is she is a victim of mismanagement or of her own naivete, or if — and the other hand — she has calculated the results of will get some personal benefit.

I admit that — as twisted as it may seem to me — she has that right also, provided she does not exercise it as a representative of a people who have not elected her to be their spokesperson. As as Reina Luise has the right to decide her own actions, she must also have the integrity to face the questions of many who, like me, were supportive of her demands for justice in the past, and who now feel sorry for her.

June 24 2011

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Photograph by Orlando Luis

One of the most common attacks from the official spaces against the alternative bloggers revolved around our supposed malicious interest in silencing the “achievements” of the Revolution. With regards to the issue of health, the scoldings bring up a point. The altruism of the so-called solidarity–referring primarily to the medical brigades serving in other countries–has become, for several years, the surviving showcase for marketing tropical socialism and is the object of more than a few recognitions on the part of international organizations who comment on the professionalism and spirit of sacrifice of our doctors, as well as the political willingness of the leaders of the Revolution to support health programs in less-favored countries.

Cuba, by virtue of this capricious principle, ranks among the “favored” countries for an enviable public health system, taking into account that is has the luxury of exporting doctors and equipment. Of course, they never mention in said spaces that so much altruism is detrimental to the Cuban people themselves, who have witnessed an accelerated deterioration in all the health services.

It’s not necessary to point out that the official press allows itself to reflect daily on the efforts of our government to maintain “the high standards” of medical attention, the “free” character of the services, and the many sacrifices they have to make to ensure that the people don’t lack such privileges. Most commonly, the official praise is accompanied by data. So, a patient who depends on dialysis, or who has undergone complex transplant surgery of some organ, has to additionally suffer the governmental pedantry reminding him of his eternal debt of gratitude to the Revolution and the high cost of his care and treatment, as if it weren’t enough to suffer the illness and the impossibility of access to other services offered by the country’s battered hospitals.

On short, we bloggers are truly impertinent, as we spend our time looking for spots on the sun. Because, after all, faced with such greatness, what does it matter, for example, that a 74-year-old patient has spent ten days in Salvador Allende Hospital (Covadonga), between the end of May and the beginning of June, without undergoing an endoscopy because there was no water? It’s true that he was vomiting blood, but still–without even finding an ambulance that could take him for the prescribed examination at another hospital–the doctors on more than one occasion tried to discharge him without diagnosis. Very professional and ethical of them, as after all, at the end of the day they’re not plumbers and couldn’t solve the water problem.  Right? The patient finally was able to enter, be diagnosed, and undergo surgery at the Hermanos Aimeijeiras Hospital, thanks to the opportune intervention of his nephew, a famous musician whose name I won’t mention.

Another silly little thing the media don’t divulge is the fact that the Dentistry School at the University of Havana is not offering services because there aren’t any gloves. Believe me, it’s true. After a precarious period due to a scarcity of this basic supply, the prestigious center had to discontinue patient care due to the small reserve of gloves which had to be set aside for the use of those students facing the upcoming state exams. Let’s not go into the frequency with which they lack anesthetics or simply the frequency with which those they do possess have expired. I know this because I suffered it with my own tooth.

But the glove crisis has turned into an epidemic. A few months ago my friend Diana took her son to the Central Havana pediatric hospital for the removal of a small subcutaneous cyst by outpatient surgery. My friend watched how the doctor, after a brief operation, instead of tossing the gloves in the trash, carefully laid them on the instrument tray. She wanted to clear up this mystery and the doctor explained that she had to return the used gloves to the nurse each day, who was in charge of recycling them. This was required because there was such a scarcity of gloves and at the end of the consultations they were recorded as if they were basic equipment. Diana wonders where it would be possible to sterilize worn latex gloves. I do not know the answer to that.

Recently an acquaintance of mine was undergoing a caesarean in the Gonzalez Coro (formerly Sacred heart) maternity hospital, one of the most prestigious of its type in the country. Just before the operation, the anesthesiologist asked her husband for a 10 CUC card to recharge her mobile phone. I wonder what family would refuse, under the circumstances, to satisfy the specialist’s request, but I don’t know a single one that would dare to denounce such extortion. And I know that all the specialist are not extortionists, but I don’t know of one who doesn’t accept gifts.

We know that their salaries (like those of any State-employed Cuban) are not sufficient to meet their basic needs, but in this case setting aside words such as “altruism” and “ethics” when it comes time to classify our specialists would be less false, because, at the end of the day, they are, in general, as needy and corrupt as anyone.

Marcia has just injected herself in the veins of a leg. The varicose veins cause her great pain, not to mention the unesthetic aspect of those fat blue and red veins running across her skin. What’s clear is that she had to find the injections “outside” because they don’t have them in the hospital, but in the end she was able to deal with her circulatory problem. Now she needs the shots in the other leg… Only the clinic where she is supposed to undergo the process was closed. The attending physician doesn’t know if it will reopen, nor where or where. So, Marcia must begin her peregrination through hospitals and clinics to find a solution, or simply resign herself to living with the atrophied veins in her leg while waiting for treatment.

The hidden face of these false “free services” jumps out at us daily in every clinic. Of course there is no lack of the bovine-minded who rejoice in the mere fact that, in the best case, there is a medical graduate behind a desk ready to prescribe some remedy, after a phone consultation with the nearest pharmacy to verify whether or not they have the medicine. Although the most common is that ordinary Cubans will be attended to (if you can call it that) by some foreign student, almost always a remote and enigmatic Latin American. It is the good fortune of the beggars when they have no other option.

The anecdotes of Cubans who are forced to be seen at clinics, or even worse, to be hospitalized and undergo surgery in our much-lauded “free” service, would fill an infinite collection of pages. I dare say many more pages than would be required for all the triumphalist articles published by Granma in the last decade. This explains, perhaps, the mania of the bloggers to expose the infinite spots on the Revolutionary sun, whose artificial brilliance has produced a strange blindness in the official journalists. Hopefully they won’t have to be seen in a medical clinic! Or, better yet, hopefully our clinics will have the same conditions as theirs!

June 14 2011

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Coco (Guillermo Fariñas) with a group of collaborators and friends during the Prince Claus Prize Ceremony for Yoani Sanchez

Recently a fellow Cuban living abroad and I exchanged views on the advisability of hunger strikes as a way to confront the dictatorship. The subject, of course, was motivated by the strike initiated by Jorge Luis Artiles (Bebo) last May 9, in the city of Santa Clara, and that was assumed on Friday, June 3, by Guillermo (Coco) Fariñas, when Bebo ended his faced with the danger of grave consequences to his health, too impaired to withstand a prolonged abstinence from food and water; that is, before the logical imperatives arising from the action he had voluntarily chosen. My colleague, who has a great admiration and affection for Coco, is, however–like myself–against hunger strikes. His position is that we must fight dictators with our lives. I fully agree with him.

Fariñas’ current strike, beyond the question of his demands which I do not question and also consider to be mine, puts back on the table an issue that goes beyond the particular aspects of the event: the appropriateness or otherwise of the method in each case. At the risk of upsetting the most sensitive, I think that as dissidents living immersed in totalitarian regimes, we must be more rational than passionate when the time comes to face off against the government, even if it implies–as our friend Orlando Luis would say–adding a dash of cynicism to our analysis. We have to consider first and foremost the real possibility of achieving a significant advance as a result of actions undertaken, such that they truly merit the sacrifice. With all due respect, health and life are too high a price.

That is why–although in hunger strikes there is, without a doubt, a huge portion of altruism, and an incredible individual willpower, as shown in the one Coco held between February 24 and July 8, 2010, and that influenced the release of dozens of political prisoners and of conscience–using the method as a standard device can be counterproductive and ineffective. The fact is, if every demand we have against the government, however just it might be, requires an opponent’s ultimate sacrifice, in a very short time we ourselves will have achieved the extinction of the dissent, to the delight of dictators.

The sacrifice involved in a hunger strike is well-known and the will required by the striker to overcome the demands of his own body, used as a weapon in the service of his cause, independent of whether or not the demands that motivate him are met, contains a dose of triumph, considering that even the death of the striker would constitute an accusation against the system. Eventually, however, this death would not be a guarantee that the government would accede to the striker’s demands. At the same time, in the difficult circumstances of Cuba today, much more than moral successes is needed. An opposition leader on the Island is much more useful alive than dead.

Nor should we neglect other collateral considerations, such as the circumstances within which events unfold. Many factors of external pressure and the existence of internal forces pushed us towards a favorable solution to the prisoner crisis and a successful end to Fariñas’ strike last year. Some of these internal factors were more significant, taking place simultaneously on the national and international stage: Orlando Zapata Tamayo’s death in prison which sparked the beginning of Fariñas’ strike; the worsening of the general crisis within Cuba, exacerbated by the scandal of the death of more than two dozen patients at the Havana Psychiatric Hospital; the force and visibility reached by the Ladies in White movement and the solidarity established among many civil society groups in favor of that movement and its cause also influenced the outcome.

For their part, foreign media covered the events taking place on the Island, expanding the possibility for the pressures of international public opinion to force the government to seek a solution. At the same time, the government was anxious to offer the world a gesture of good will–we recall the lobbying of Mr. Moratinos to try to lift the European Union’s Common Position–such that the General considered it opportune to demonstrate benevolence to those he had always classified as traitors and mercenaries. This, there was an understanding in which all parties could find an advantage, a requirement to achieve a pact.

The current scenario, however, is quite different from that; not because the acute sociopolitical and economic crisis in Cuban has passed, but because the international picture is extremely complex and events are unfolding that are coming to mark globally defined milestones. Some of these events are the wave of uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa which are drawing a new political scenario in the region; the crisis in Libya with the reluctance of Qaddafi to relinquish power, the presence of rebel forces and the NATO air strikes; and the demonstrations in European countries–such as Spain and Greece–demanding new political and economic strategies to overcome their respective crises, are some of the most relevant events.

In this environment, the demand for justice for the death of a Cuban dissident, and the demand to the dictatorship to cease to beat those who demonstrate peacefully in our streets, are as close to chimeric as possible. Particularly since both demands reach very high levels, requiring a retraction from the government in the first case (retracting what they published in an official press release saying that Juan Wilfredo Soto had never been beaten); and with regards to the second, capitulation would mean taking the risk that the streets would be filled with dissident demonstrations, in contradiction to the call, at the close of the Sixth Communist Party Congress, by the General-cum-President to defend the streets “as spaces for Revolutionaries.”

A public commitment of this nature on the part of the government would implicitly recognize that in Cuba–paradigm of respect for human rights according to official preaching–violently represses those who think differently. And I state that if the government were to retract or back down, I would be the first to celebrate the miracle.

It also happens that, unintentionally, a hunger striker puts additional pressure on his fellow travelers, who inadvertently fall into the ethical dilemma of siding with him, even if they don’t support the strike, they must support the demands while deprecating the methods to achieve them. The strike also imposes a moral commitment that banishes to another level every aspect that is not related to the demands of the striker, which may affect programs and activities of other groups, perhaps no less important.

That is, in spite of being an individual action in defense of collective interests, it commits spaces and social networks and forces priorities. I am certain there will be no shortage of critics who will take the opportunity to attack me for what they will call a lack of support for Fariñas. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is precisely because I support him and share his demands, because I esteem and respect him, that I have a heartfelt desire that he would abandon the practice of hunger strikers: those of us who do not accept these methods are also those who want to live and be here to support the Cuba we dream of; we need Cubans of his honesty and courage for these times and the times to come.

To date, everything indicates that the government will not cede spaces to democracy, therefore, it is urgent to find new solutions to conquer them, beyond those involving the voluntary martyrdom of Cuban democrats. I return to the phrase of my colleague, who also suffered political imprisonment in terrible and lonely times in the ’60s, to propose that we oppose the dictatorship with LIFE. To awake to life every day and to prepare ourselves for an individual and collective future, is in itself a triumph over the regime, because life is the first condition for hope.

June 10 2011

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At last, skeptics have been able to confirm the accuracy of their assessment of the insolubility of the Cuban problem from government “initiatives”. The Sixth Congress of the Cuban Communist Party, held last April, didn’t go beyond a situational formality intended to legitimize the decisions previously issued by the top leadership of the country and give the green light to the same outmoded system, generator of the national crisis, despite the supposedly reformist varnish that was intended to give some attractive luster to the always drab event. After the Sixth Congress, it became clear that the improvisation as the system’s own method has reached its limits. It was an event that did not materialize steps, phases, timelines and specific proposals, and whose “agreements” apply stale cryptic language in which ambiguity remains the official recourse to prevent obligations and elude responsibility.

In many areas and in virtual opinion forums the problem of the impossibility of partial changes in the midst of a systemic crisis is being discussed; a thesis that is being confirmed, for example, by the apparent contradiction of simultaneously implementing economic measures while increasing repressive actions against sectors not in tune with the system. All the ongoing “opening up/repression” — in which the latter is much more visible — is based on the authorities’ knowledge of an elementary principle: any movement within a totalitarian system, however minimal, will, sooner or later, lead to the total transformation of that system. In Cuba, after half a century of ideological wear and sustained “massification” of individuals, limited autonomy or opening up of any kind could lead to the precipitation of events that would ruin the regime’s “renovation project” and, consequently, the regime itself. The hastiest response to avoid this, on the part of the system, is to nip any expression of disagreement or dissent.

Apart from official decisions, however, is the Island’s asphyxiating sociopolitical and economic situation. The first part of this year has seen an accentuation of a markedly unsalvageable dichotomy: on the one hand, General Raúl Castro needs to implement, in a relatively short time, his economic measures destined to the “upgrading of the model”. On the other hand, the social equilibrium gets more fragile at every turn, a product of the general crisis of the system, which goes against both the effective completion of said process of reforms as well as against the government’s forecasted results. Behold, the General faces an almost impossible mission: to demonstrate the viability of the process of economic reforms that tend to grant independence to large sectors of the population –let’s not forget that the government itself seeks to ensure that the planned layoffs will be conducive to increasing the sector of self-sustaining protobusinessmen that will contribute to the economy through taxation — while maintaining social control in order to retain all power. The whole dilemma revolves around whether it would be possible for the regime to stay in the role of shepherd of a flock of more than one million individuals who will stop being “masses” to turn into citizens as the result of the application of those same government measures, or if an eventual process of reforms would stimulate the strengthening of an independent civil society stemming from the emergence of groups with common interests, that is, a theoretical situation of checkmate, judging by the position of the pieces that can be seen on the board.

This situation, in turn, has led to a slowdown in reform implementation, demonstrating that the reversal of the general paralysis is much more difficult and complex than expected by the renovation ideologues from their comfortable climate-controlled cabinets. A recent Council of Ministers, chaired by the General, had, among the items on its agenda, the analysis on the implementation of self-employment applied so far, “which proved inadequate in its initial basic preparation” which is seen as a congenital inability of some municipal leaders to create “the conditions necessary to ensure adequate care for those interested in this employment alternative”. This, coupled with the usual bureaucratic ills (request for documents not required by law, undue delay of proceedings, etc.), in turn settles the top leadership’s inability to make himself understood by his subordinates — or in his failure — their reluctance to abide by guidelines from above (“authority crisis?). Half a century of top leadership has failed to prepare for its adequate replacement, not even to save it from its own interests, but aiming at being the vanguard that would protect the interests of the entire nation. Nothing could better illustrate the insurmountable fissures of the system.

At the same meeting, the ministers approved the proposal “to extend the timetable for executing the process of availability of the labor force” or, in words without any euphemisms, to also slow the layoff plans, a measure that corresponds with the insufficient answer to private business as a viable alternative to unemployment in the Cuban realm. That is, even if not articulated in that fashion, several factors  demonstrate how reality problems go far beyond the scope of the official proposals: the lack of sufficient stimulus on the part of the potentially interested in this “employment alternative”,  faced with difficulties, such as high tax rates, the lack of wholesale markets for  materials, supplies, etc., plus the risks of investing one’s own limited resources in a country where approximately 20% of the active labor population will be unemployed, among other factors.

While the government has slowed the implementation of reforms and layoffs, an apparent radicalization of dissent is taking shape. This is a process that is experiencing a modest but steady growth, which could, simultaneously, be affecting the depletion of the system, the general crisis of values, the standardization of poverty and corruption at all levels, the loss of credibility in the Revolution, government and institutions, the lack of expectations and a host of other countless, equally significant factors, including the very repression. Paradoxically, the regime has simultaneously maintained a marked tendency to the systematic harassment of individuals and groups critical of the system, thus enabling the expansion of the range of sectors potentially hostile to the government and, additionally, granting visibility and importance.to them.

Using suicidal logic, authorities have stepped up harassment, intimidation, threats, beatings, “operatives” and brief arrests, with the intention to stifle any possible outbreak of riots and to discourage the emergence of new alternative spaces, succeeding in the opposite effect: strengthening the role of dissidents, awakening the sympathy of the population for those persecuted — who are usually, at least, respected by the supposed courage of confronting the regime’s power — exposing, each time, the perverse nature of the system, positioning the magnifying lens over the growing civic and opposition activism, and helping to extend a feeling of latent rebellion among those  who desperately seek other options in the face of the failure of the communist experiment.  Similarly, it has become extremely difficult for authorities, seeking the support of economic powers and political forums, to provide a friendly face to foreign powers as it establishes, as a mechanism of control inside the country, a kind of “terror attenuated” which is the selective application of the repression over isolated individuals and groups to maintain a climate of mute panic over the rest of the population.

Today, Cuba is becoming aware that, if the government leads  in the economic plan, imposing its rhythm and depth on the reforms basic to the state’s monopoly in this sphere, in the social aspect, alternative or independent civic groups are marking the beat through pressure that the authorities can’t afford to ignore indefinitely. An unequivocal sign of progress in this regard is that several groups have already passed the initial stage of catharsis in critical areas, and are taking frankly responsible positions in the process of making citizens out of the masses of slaves. The social offensive is tilting the balance in favor of sectors with new proposals, truly innovative ideas, and a rather conciliatory and inclusive discourse. Somehow, it has begun to cause the breakdown of the social immobility before the end of the economic stagnation, probably because, as the economy remains subject to the power center, civic niches, as a social phenomenon, have relative independence in that respect. A general, more defining spirit of radical changes, with greater depth and a more comprehensive one than Raúl’s reforms is thus intensifying, gradually.

Among the main attractions of the alternative sectors are open public debates, free press, free flow of ideas and opinions, the right of association, and access to information and communications; requirements that correspond to real time, as the rest of the world we live in, whose denial can no longer hide behind barricading slogans  and enemies of the occasion. In an incipient, but visible manner, a web has begun to be woven — still fragile but tenacious — from the meeting of dissimilar minds that are being joined by a spirit of shared civility.  It is too soon for triumphalist predictions: In Cuba, better forged ideas have failed more than once, but this one is perhaps the last hopeful spark, barely a log floating in the ocean of the national shipwreck. Over a century of revolutionary experiments leaves no room for doubt. Evolution, not revolution.  We have no other choice.

(Published in the magazine Voices 8 for the month of May)

June 3 2011

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