Archive for November, 2011

“Someday”. Work of Cuban artist Alicia Leal

This week I had a brief involvement in a radio program, but, unfortunately, there was insufficient time for the issue which I was invited discuss. Of course, this is not the Cuban radio on the Island, nor do I want to make a critical assessment of the program in question in this post. I hold the show in high regard, and I’ve been honored when I was invited as their guest on more than one occasion. The radio has very peculiar characteristics, and the informative nature of the show prevents it from expanding into more substantial deliberations. But the truth is that, having just a minute or two to talk, I came away with –as we Cubans say- certain things inside me that I would not want to skip over, not because possibilities to sustain responses and counter-responses exist only in an extensive debate, but because the show’s subject revolved around the results of a survey conducted in Cuba by the International Republican Institute (IRI), an institution that has made a total of six surveys in Cuba in the past few months. Nothing about the current Cuban reality is alien to me, so let’s use our blog as virtual support to freely express considerations relating to the survey and its content.

I must start by acknowledging that, perhaps due to my academic training, despite my view of surveys as useful tools, I approach them with caution. To me, they are just that: tools, a means to an end. It is obvious that any survey implies an inevitable degree of subjectivity regarding the interests of the research conducted with the sample selection and other factors no less important, which is why sociological generalizations from a limited sampling is quite risky, regardless of the seriousness and professionalism of surveying institutions. The first thing, I believe, is that inquiries must involve arriving at new knowledge to transcend what is already known, and not merely to confirm issues already in the public domain. And though funds to conduct such inquiries do not come out of my pocket, I feel I am at liberty to question the results of this or any other survey, whether or not my opinion is welcome.

As for the distrust of government and the “socialist project” and the despair about the nation’s future, they are clearly validated in the increasing number of Cubans who leave the country, both legally and illegally, in a growing and constant wave. Viewed objectively, it could be stated that such exodus is the visible plebiscite that has been checking off a “NO” to the Castro-communist government. It can also be assured that the celebration of the VI Congress of the Cuban Communist Party this past April, with its disappointing results, has served as a catalyst that accelerated the stampede. This represents the people’s mute judgment about their faith in economic reforms. Cuba bleeds dramatically, losing in the exodus most of her young work force, many enterprising people, and the better portion of her best specialists. Isn’t this a more resounding truth than a thousand surveys?

As far as many Cubans here are concerned, it is not necessary to have survey results to  verify the high levels of discontent and uncertainty we live under, or to confirm the mistrust over government dealings in the “implementation of changes” or “the renewal of the model”. And let’s not talk about the so-called reforms of the General!  Just go to the license registration offices to verify the number of “permits” that are returned each day. One doesn’t have to be too clever to see that some of those who appealed to the law in order to maintain a small private business -be it a café, a restaurant or a jewelry stand- could not face high taxes and other economic challenges, and will try to survive in some other way going forward, not necessarily “legally”, given that the ultimate employer for half a century, Father State, has started, slowly but steadily, the swell (and not the “wave”) of layoffs and there aren’t many options. These elements of the frustrated proto-national business constitute, either on a conscious or subconscious level, a sector of critical and potential disaffects to the system.

At this stage of the game, Pero Grullo’s truth is valid, in that we Cubans have a miserable rate of Internet connectivity, an issue that has been published numerous times by institutions, agencies and international personalities, so it’s somewhat redundant to mention a (very fabulous) 7% rate of connectivity on the island, especially if it is known that many Cubans who have an official e-mail account in a strictly controlled national network say they “have Internet”.  As it is, this figure is generous and does not reflect the true and lamentable extent of the lack of access of the vast majority of Cubans who have never had a chance to even glimpse at a web browser.

As an additional factor, a sample of 500 individuals as the number representative of a population of more than 11 million people makes me doubt the survey. The argument that “the number is valid because “these are the standard approved by prestigious international level survey agencies, therefore the results are accurate” does not sit well with me.  Standardization of the knowledge or of the research can only lead to the ignorance of important factors, especially when we are dealing with sociology and politics. I don’t think, for example, that the responses of 500 Cubans living here can be as reliable and accurate as those of the same number of individuals in France, Germany, the US, or any other democratic society … those that set the standards. I regret that my answer to the IRI specialist‘s question of was so superficial, with my apologies to all the titles and coats of arms that decorate her, but I do not usually resign myself to the graces of acceptance, nor do I meekly assume the supposed intellectual superiority of an entity because there are simply pre-set standards (“unquestionable” by others) and, therefore, “good”.

Another element to consider in the Cuban case is the national paranoia, which generates a climate of self-censorship that often prevents real answers by the respondents. Reaching rates of 80-90% of anti-government criticism in Cuba is truly very difficult to achieve, even by independent Cuban journalists. On numerous occasions I have listened to evasive answers from people I’ve known for a long time, with whom I have a relationship of trust and who are critical of the Cuban reality. “I’m not interested in politics”, “I do not know anything about that, what we want is to leave”, “what’s important to me is to work out my life and my family, I don’t get involved”, or lately, they respond by imitating a trendy musical number: “I just want a little bit* so I can live”. So, I can only think that the survey takers of the Institute found the most civic 500 Cubans in all of Cuba. Such lucky guys! I don’t know if the institution fully understands their great responsibility in creating a false expectation in a nation (composed of Cubans everywhere) that has been subjected to such a long and anxious wait. Some will believe, based on these results, that reaching the end of the Cuban dictatorship is only a matter of procedure.

My well-respected colleague, who participated in the show, granted absolute credibility to the survey and dismissed my reservations because, as he stated, “We Cubans have lost our fear and express ourselves publicly in queues, in metropolitan mass-transportation, etc… “, which is absolutely true, as this writer has been able to experience in her daily strolls. However, cyclical collective catharsis amid a stressful situation and taking a survey (however limited it may be) without fear, in front of strangers, for a foreign institution to boot …is not the same. Does my colleague really believe that the two situations can compare? Does he think that the verbal explosion alone, in the presence of a host of frustrations can imply an anti-government political attitude or civic maturity? So what are we missing? Just will power? I think not.

For my part, I also want to believe that at least 500 anonymous, common Cubans, assumed their responsibility to express themselves conscientiously and without fear when responding to a survey, but frankly I “find it hard” to believe. Not a problem of lack of faith, but of realism. As for me, though I am convinced of the irreversible failure of the system and the inevitable end of the Cuban dictatorship, I prefer not to mislead or to sweeten the pill. I reject the triumphalism of any color or trend, and I will have validation of the rates obtained by the International Republican Institute on the day that the number of Cubans who publicly defend and support the Ladies in White is at least half of the repudiators contracted by the government to harass them; when the number of voters attending the polls in the fake elections of the so-called “people power” falls by at least 50%; when in any official meeting -of the CDR, of “accountability” of a union, of any nucleus of the Cuban Communist Party, etc.- at least 5 or 10 Cubans get up to question government policy or “higher” decisions or when simply someone shouts “I oppose the proposal.” That moment may not be too long in coming, I’m such an optimist, but, so far, Master Pollsters, what is true is that, beyond the good intentions and wishes to please, the results your surveys pose, just like the General Raul’s “reforms”, do not offer any certainty of changes.

*Translator’s note:
The traditional meaning of  “cachito” is “a little bit”, but it’s possible that, when used in the song, it could refer to  “a little joint” (marijuana cigarette), an alternate meaning in some parts of Latin America.

November 25 2011

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Military business interests range from hard-currency stores, transportation for tourists and restaurants, to hotels in different parts of the country.

So that no one can say that the bans don’t also apply in places better favored by the dominant caste, a resolution has recently been passed banning employees of some well-known companies of the Ministry of Armed Forces from bringing portable computer devices to work. What that will mean is that employees won’t be allowed to bring to work flash drives, external drives, laptops, notebooks, mobile phones or any other “potential support for the transfer of information that can pose risks to the institution or to the country in its development of political, military, economic, commercial, scientific, technical, cultural, social and other aspects.”  How about that?

The rascal that makes an enemy out of any gadget related to computer technology is resolution 288/2011, and it’s a sort of gag order for employees of the Business Management Group (EAG), directed by Luis Alberto López Callejas, son-in-law of the General-President, and includes a number of companies operating in foreign currencies, including Gaviota. ALMEST (I don’t know the meaning of this acronym), TRD Caribe, Transgaviota, and others.

This resolution was reported to the employees in the early days of November, and although the order is apparently being obeyed, many unofficially admit that they carry their flash memories and cellular phones, contravening the order. “My cell phone line was way too expensive for me not to use it now.  I have a young kid at home and I have to be on the alert in case he gets sick or needs something,” a friend who works in one of those centers tells me.

The employees of these private military businesses are civilians, but they are subject to resolutions and circulars and are expected to observe the rules in a military fashion. In any case, the measure reflects the official terror of the possibilities of new technologies. In the face of such behavior, the referenced companies seem more like intelligence centers or offices where exchange of information takes place dealing with national security… or rather, the insecurity of the government.

November 18 2011

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Crucifixion. Work of Cuban painter Tomás Sánchez

A debate encounter sponsored by the Catholic digital publication Espacio Laical took place on Saturday, October 29th, 2011.  The agency EFE, the leading Spanish news agency, reported the event in a very laudable manner, as published on October 30th on the digital site Cubaencuentro. The report states that “The new role that the Catholic Church in Cuba has undertaken has provided forums for dialogue where even a dissident or a controversial academician are able to exchange their views in public with a leading intellectual public official.” Additionally, it exposes details of the intervention of the founder of the Institute of Art and the Cinematographic Industry (ICAIC) and the director of the Latin American New Film Festival, Alfredo Guevara, who “gave a lecture on Cuba’s current challenges” by addressing issues of economic adjustments, the problem of bureaucracy and the need to understand diversity and tolerance in today’s Cuba.

Present at the event were Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the official academic Esteban Morales, the economist and former political prisoner of  the Black Spring group, Oscar Espinosa Chepe, and a group of students, intellectuals, economists, foreign diplomats and “local and foreign journalists.” The press release does not specify who these local journalists were, but they are presumed to be representatives of the official press, since there has not been any editorial opinion about said encounter from independent journalists and bloggers.

Nor did the official media give coverage to such a significant event, though one of the topics discussed was precisely in relation to the limitations of the press in Cuba and “the concealment of information to citizens,” as discussed by dissident economist Espinosa Chepe, who was very positive about debates that are “civilized, not offensive, without exclusions or absurd prejudices, because ideological diversity does exist in Cuba”, and he indicated that it was enough just to walk outside to listen to people’s criticism. As part of his response, Guevara considered that secrecy had to end “radically”.

Another of the aspects that EFE’s report emphasizes is the opinion of many of the meeting’s attendees about “the new role being played by the Catholic Church, providing spaces for dialogue on issues of all kinds and incorporating diverse opinions” and it added that “Cardinal Ortega himself stated last Friday that the Church is experiencing a new relationship with the State and the people of Cuba, and he confirmed that the dialogue initiated last year with Raúl Castro and his government continues, and it affects all areas of national life, including the adjustment process to ‘update’ the socialist model.”

In reality, we must recognize that any debate space that opens up for dialogue in a nation so tense and fragmented as ours, will, indeed, be positive. However, it would be desirable that the intentions professed should correspond more consistently with the facts. Let’s say that no debate about the actual Cuban reality should be considered inclusive when among the participants there is barely one representative of the broad array of non-official opinion – call them dissidents — of all of society, when not one member is invited from independent journalism or from alternative civil society that has emerged ever so strongly in the past few years, and other numerous and young voices that have much to say and to which so many venues have been denied.

One of the notable absentees at this event is the Catholic layman Dagoberto Valdés editor of the magazine Vitral, for many years and current host of the group’s wonderful magazine Convivencia. There have been many cultural, literary and civic activities developed by this group of people from Pinar del Rio, led by Dagoberto, in defense of diversity, freedom, and Cubanism; however, they don’t seem to qualify to take part in the debate of Espacio Laical.

There were also no representatives from the Cuban Law Association to offer an alternative view on the new legislation that is being announced, and the decrees that have been introduced in the very highly publicized process of government reforms.

Neither the Catholic Church nor Espacio Laical can be considered “new spaces” as they offer just the stage where discussions are confined to the thematic framework of the same old speeches disguised as reform, dictated by the same old speakers that have thrived for more than half century in the high politics of the country, apparently without perceiving any errors in the system. If those are the guiding voices, we are not before what is new or innovative, but rather in the presence of an opportunistic mutation of the same and already long-lived deadly disease.

Cardinal Ortega’s approach also seems, at the very least, ambiguous, since the idea that the Church is experiencing a new relationship with the Cuban people and their “dialogue” covers all areas of national life, including so-called process of updating the socialist model. At least regular Cubans do not seem to feel the presence of the Church in their lives, full of all kinds of shortages and lack of places to express themselves. Monsignor Ortega is far from being considered a representative of the feelings of the Cuban people, and, so far, he doesn’t seem to have as close a relationship with them as he does with the General. Nor can I understand the relationship between the purple and the olive green dialogue or their intention to renew socialism. It would seem that the Cardinal might soon receive his Cuban Communist Party membership card.

In fact, this Espacio Laical event has been full of the same secrecy that was so criticized in the encounter: there were no calls to attend, no invitation to all active opinion sectors, or media coverage of the conference and debates, or transparency. It was as if it were a conspiracy to care for a sacred venue, safe from the sacrilegious agitators who make embarrassing pronouncements, who plant themselves, who demand rights, who express themselves respectfully but without hiding their opinions. Apparently, new parameters have been established that maintains tight departments or niches, neither more nor less than the feedback of a new sectarianism, now scented with wax and incense.

Espacio Laical has often published brave and honest editorials, and has, in more than one occasion, expressed opinions and put forth questions that reflect the concerns of thousands of Cubans, but, in this case, it must be recognized that in practice it’s losing the opportunity to demonstrate true commitment for dialogue, because one cannot ignore players who have been marking the beat on the transformation of Cuban public opinion long before the government is forced to occasionally temper its discourse or to implement –much to their dismay- the limited economic and social changes that seem to dazzle the press today.

The Cardinal, meanwhile, played a positive role as a mediator for the release of prisoners of conscience, but their freeing could not have been possible without the courage and perseverance of the Ladies in White, without the sacrifice of Guillermo Fariñas and without the ongoing activities of journalists and independent bloggers. None of them were invited to the event last Saturday, perhaps because the Catholic Church delicately does not allow itself the risk of offending the speeches of  the holy  hierarchy with the more legitimate civil claims, or because perhaps it considers the people of this country so inept that they can only be represented either by guns or cassocks.

Thus, I would argue that the real opportunities for dialogue have been taking place spontaneously outside of institutions. The Estado de SATS (where Art and thought converge) the groups OMNI  ZONAFRANCA, the Blogger Academy, Voces digital magazine, the group Convivencia, some of these spaces are inclusive, where all opinions are welcome, where debates don’t have stiff moderators surfeited with authority, or require the previous dictate of some anointed official. Good for Espacio Laical if it decides to promote and maintain a new debate forum, albeit half-hearted, but – let’s be fair — the event this past October 29th was neither so unprecedented nor a dialogue.

November 11 2011

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Eating Medals

Produce detail

On Tuesday, November 1st, the Granma newspaper announced on its front page something that may constitute the ultimate Cuban surrealism. “The Cuban economy will grow 2.9% this year”. Page 2 displayed the same triumphant tone in two other petty articles whose headlines bear happy and misleading portents: “FIHAV 2011*. Growing Spanish Interest in Commercial Interchange with Cuba,” and” Investments in Construction Material Industry Guarantee Sector Growth.” All very funny, really. Granma has become the funniest publication in this country, only in most cases it’s black humor.

However, though just in the two blocks encompassed by Árbol Seco, between Estrella and Sitios (Centro Habana) every day there are between four and five carts with about the same products –- onions, green beans, bananas and plantains, garlic, peppers, avocados, papaya, tomato and beans — produce prices are not only excessively high, they are higher than last year’s prices.

Just yesterday I stopped in to do some shopping at the market on the corner of Jesús Peregrino and Santiago, also in Centro Habana. Eleven tiny tomatoes, a bunch of plantains and three small taro cost me 30 pesos. Next to me, an old man in his seventies watched the price board with an incredulous and concerned look in his face. He smiled at me bitterly. Nothing doing, honey, we came in second in the Pan-American Games, so now we will eat medals. And he left, talking to himself, with an empty shopping bag.

And while the official party mouthpiece wallows in such economic recovery inexplicably born out of fiction in a country where for so long nothing is produced, ordinary people feel their pockets increasingly depressed. In recent months, for example, my neighborhood has filled with produce carts. The proliferation of “wagon pushers” is such that, according to one of them, “no more licenses for this activity are being issued because the ones they had planned on have been exhausted.” You’d think that agricultural production would have increased under the reform momentum of our General-President. Produce stands and agro-markets, meanwhile, seem to compete only in terms of prices, a “contest” among sellers that seems determined to show who is able to set the highest price for his products; markets where, in addition, the quality of what’s offered leaves much to be desired.

*Havana International Fair 2011

November 4 2011

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Those of us Habaneros who were already adults in the 90’s witnessed the dismantling of the so-called “hostels” or INIT shelters, which — for the younger readers — were something like the tropical version of a cheap motel in which, for a small fee, couples who had no other adequate space rented a room for a few hours to have sexual relations. As a “solution” for the impossible task of sustaining the housing construction micro-brigades in the midst of the crisis known as “the special period in peacetime”, those hostels were fully adapted to housing and distributed as tiny apartments to families that did not have a place to live.

As a consequence, far from solving the general problem of housing, given that there were never enough hostels to provide homes to so many who needed them, they created another problem: couples without private spaces were stripped of their seedy but single possibility of having sex behind closed doors, without emptying their pockets. There has been little discussion of this, but since they closed the inns, sex was another item that became significantly more expensive and even became part of public spectacles in parks, dark corners, and stairways of familiar buildings.

But such dispossession was not something that concerned government officials. After all, this only hurt the poorest and, besides, no one would even think of bringing up such a problem in an assembly, lest they be labeled obscene or be subjected to ridicule. Mockery is already known to be the national tendency. On silencing the issue, the problem would “disappear”. Curiously, Cubans, who often boast of being sexual athletes, get very picky when discussing issues related to this. And so, the hostels, like other morally questionable sites, ended up red-listed among the many useful institutions that disappeared under this government.

The fact is that twenty years later, with the growing housing crisis, the steady deterioration of housing stock, and the chronic insufficiency of construction, the authorities have opted to appeal to a supreme source: turning into housing many of the local houses and offices recently used by their institutions, plus factories that have been closed due to the regressive economic effect of the system. Of course, this is not about institutions that are strategic to the government, but those that do not produce earnings, but expenses: The Ministry of Education, of Housing, small factories, etc.

Thus, while the construction of new buildings with better dignified façades are intended only for the sectors for the faithful (“atypical” buildings for Armed Forces or Interior Ministry officials) or beautiful homes are built for the anointed with closer relationships with the power in exclusive neighborhoods of the city, such as the “frozen” area in the vicinity of the hospital popularly known as CIMECQ, near Ground Zero, a neighborhood that was for the previous highest bourgeoisie; the disadvantaged get an ancient building or an austere narrow office space turned into an apartment, where, slowly, as construction materials make their appearance, they are building, with their own hands and with moving illusion, what will be their home the day that they finally install the last coat of plaster.

Those who want to verify this can simply pick out a sector of the city and set their eyes on the details. The old tobacco factory located at Carlos III and Árbol Seco is getting the final push to be transformed into a kind of new type of rooming house which will accommodate 21 apartments for families. The old building of the micro-social in the Casino Deportivo (3rd Street, between Entrada and 2nd) is also being turned into small apartments, while the house that was a branch of the Ministry of Education on the same block was given to a more lucky family… maybe an official who is devout from one of the sacred, untouchable institutions, those that don’t get mutilated.

Mind you, I don’t regret the disappearance of the offices of so many obsolete units which, like the marabou weed*, have spread throughout Cuba for over half a century. In fact, I would love to see their return to their original condition as family homes, for example, four comfortable mansions which for decades, after having been expropriated from their rightful owners, have been used as headquarters of the provincial committee of the Communist Party. That, and not to mention the overwhelming number of buildings also occupied by other parasitic organizations: CTC, CDR, FMC, DC, Popular Power, and an endless list. The mansions of the leaders and their privileged neighborhoods, are, of course, not linked to the housing program for the poor.

Given the lack of new construction, the inability of the state to build, and the reluctance to allow work to develop from the initiative of private contractors and private enterprises of Cubans, the government has chosen to draw on the outgrowths of their own outdated institutions, a kind of social autotrophy that, somehow, looks like a graphic manifestation of the system’s malnutrition.

*Translator’s Note:
Dichrostachys cinerea. In Cuba, the plant is known as El Marabú or Marabou weed. It has been estimated that it occupies close to five million acres (20,000 km²) of agricultural land.

October 28 2011

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