Archive for June, 2012

Carretillas en La Habana. Fotografía tomada de un sitio de Internet

Carts in Havana. Photograph taken from a website

They say God can write straight with crooked lines. I would say that, in Cuba’s case, we should sign God up for a crash course in calligraphy. We have had a half-century of crooked lines and nothing indicates that they will straighten out. Adding to the confusion, the more talk there is in the official press about “clarity and transparency,” the more muddled the waters become. Still, some wonder naively when they will apply all the guidelines of the Sixth Congress of the CCP, as if they constituted a kind of spell that might turn the chaos and poverty into order and prosperity. Fourteen months after the quasi-secret meeting of the Druids, we continue to move ahead into the abyss envisioned by the boy promoted to captain of the rickety vessel, whose DNA, by the grace of some coincidence, matches his predecessor’s,

So here we have a “reformist president” whose innovations have only managed to further thin the social climate and emphasize the life of those supposedly benefitting by the reforms, such as the people. Among the better known reforms of the new octogenarian occupying the olive green throne, for example, is the liberalization of the sale of agricultural products by street vendors, known as the elegant term of “street cart operators”, duly certified licensed to carry out their duty. The sellers were to increase the variety of produce offered to the starving city dwellers, which they in fact have done, and, in turn, result in lowering prices that would enable ordinary people to raise their nose half a centimeter over the level of insolvency that is choking them.

But the latter has not happened for many reasons (or better yet, for lack of reasons) among them, the high taxes implied obstacle, and the countless fines whose minimum amount is 500 pesos of the so-called “national currency” (CUP) applied by a diligent team of state inspectors for any minor infractions or suspected infractions, such as, for instance, keeping the cart on one spot for too long (not defining how long), for not being able to give an explanation as to the origin of the cart or even the source of the wheels of the aforesaid device used by the operator. As a result of these and other obstacles the “signal” of prosperity sent out by the elusive president has only meant less buying power for the people and a larger number of corrupt individuals… I mean, “inspectors”.

The most sarcastic thing is that many foreign friends who visit us perceive the proliferation of vendors and small businesses as a sign of prosperity and not as the screen hiding the battle that takes place behind the scenes: the proto-entrepreneurs struggling to survive and advance, and the authorities intent in preventing prosperity and the revival of a truly independent middle class. The cat and mouse, now licensed to keep up the appearance of legality of some, and of good intentions of the others. Behold, the government has achieved a new source of income: legitimizing the potential crime and charging for the inevitable violations. It’s twisted and perverse, but its brilliance cannot be denied.

The opening of private ownership kiosks has also brought about another problem it was supposed to solve. The absence of wholesale markets and the instability of the supply of any product in the retail market have resulted in an incredible imbalance in some of their prices. To mention just one example, in recent weeks, purchasing a cloth to clean floors has become an unattainable dream for more modest budgets.

The product, already priced at an altered 0.90 CUC (equivalent to 21.6 pesos CUP) suddenly disappeared from the stands at the stores selling only in dollar currency (TRD). Right now, they can only be found at 40 pesos CUP among licensed and unlicensed street vendors, that is, twice their official price.

It turns out that the guidelines also announced a crusade against corruption and illegal activity, which means they are seeking to wipe out the people of Cuba completely. Because, who doesn’t constantly violate the law in this country, starting with the government itself? What common Cuban can survive, if not on the fringes of the law? Raise your hand if you haven’t bought anything on the black market –groceries, medicine, cleaning or office products or anything else, even a place to live, a car, an airplane ticket…

Stand up if any of you has not bribed an official in any capacity to get some benefit, from a ETECSA telephone line to the promise of a job, college registration, dentures or surgery? Who has not rented movies in underground places or played the numbers in a similarly underground place? And in Cuba, even boarding a bus through the back door is a crime. So it’s not unusual that lately the official press has been reporting an avalanche of violations being detected by the Comptroller of the Republic, except that these purges, rather than marking the end of impunity, are uncovering the uncontrollable and irreversible corruption of the system from top to bottom

There still seems to be a long stretch to cancel the dual currency, another promise of the April 2011 conclave of Communists, and for the implementation of the much-publicized -and expected- emigration reforms, always being postponed or in a “study” phase (of which our leaders are a bit slow on the uptake). Many other delayed promises have been bulking up the lack of credibility in the government, suggesting that there will be no real changes as long as they are proposed by the government. In short, it is obvious that all the eternal dictators are seeking is to gain time… and we’re giving it to them. In reality, we don’t need guidelines but rights, and those are not included in the depressing package of government measures.

June 11 2012

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Internet, is it worth it or not?

In the last couple of days, a friend e-mailed me several interesting articles that generally revolve around the issue of Internet use and its role in social movements. Since that topic interests me and is part of me in many ways, I wanted to share with the readers some considerations.

The internet, blogs, social networks and citizen journalism are part of a phenomenon of our times, when the flight of information, technology, and communication invades every aspect of daily life, more directly in countries with greater access thereto. About the events in North Africa during the so-called Arab spring, there are many who have overstated the importance of the digital media as a release vehicle in the overthrow of dictatorial regimes. There have also been critics who have claimed it’s been used fraudulently by “outside interests” and may not reflect the aspirations of the masses involved, which determined that the rebellions took place as an epidemic. Is the internet or are the civic forces the current triggers of the processes for change? Are the two mutually exclusive or complementary? Clearly, when it comes to measuring the impact of a factor in social processes, opinions often reach opposite extremes.

However, in the case of Cuba, a country with a very minimal level of connectivity, what is the significance of social networks, blogs and Internet use in general? None and much. Can the new technologies help chart a course and determine democratic changes in Cuba? No and yes.

The contradiction is only apparent. Regarding the first question, and given the negligible level of access to networks available to the Cuban people, it would seem that they are equally invalid in the face of changes we need to promote in Cuba. However, it can be said that the relevance of the emergence of an alternative blogosphere and the sudden proliferation of social networks, despite the difficulties of connection and backward technology-including limited and primitive cell phone service- are practically the only possible challenge to the monopoly of the press and media information and dissemination on the part of the government.

The lack of freedom of expression, press and of association has led to a wave of online expressions of independent thought with relative success. Additionally, these venues for online freedom (indirect, impersonal, or whatever you want to call it) have been the precursors of other types of meetings which are becoming permanent: personal and direct links between different players and civil society groups that are creating democracy bubbles in the midst of a society suffocated by the apathy derived from the accumulation of scarcities and frustrations. A sign of their importance lies precisely in the contradiction between our low connectivity and the growing interest stemming from awareness of the networks and their usage.

This brings us to the second question: it is clear that the internet places a very useful tool in our hands. Just five years ago, most of those of us who are bloggers today could not even imagine the level of response that we would get –not only from our readers, but also from official zealous censors and from our repressive government- or the commitment that we were assuming with the introduction of our respective blogs. The harassment of the alternative networks and blogs by the authorities and the creation of an official blogosphere with the express mission to counteract the effects of independent bloggers demonstrate that internet use is not so harmless for the dictatorship. On the other hand, in a very short time, the networks have allowed us to establish ties and build bridges with Cubans everywhere, to get closer, thus overcoming mutual mistrust; to do away with audiences and authorities, and to find, on our own, the necessary preconditions for reconstruction of a civil society, virtually extinct from decades of totalitarianism. The willpower for change in some social sectors became clearly visible only by the grace of internet use.

Nevertheless, the use of new information technologies and communications does not in itself imply the key to success in the pursuit of democracy. This tool cannot replace human qualities, and its use does not, in any case, represent an end, but barely a means to have access to the full exercise of freedom in an indefinite future.

The web will not have the ability to mobilize where there is no determination to make changes, so the use of the internet and social networks is not condition enough to achieve democracy, but its use does not lessen its importance as a democratizing tool. Having greater access would not constitute a definitive solution, but it would represent a path to seek solutions needed to foster information among Cubans; to facilitate encounters, the exchange of ideas and views and promote something that has undoubtedly allowed a growing number of free thinkers overcome virtual limits set by bytes, and to find ourselves face to face when discussing our proposals and strengthening our hopes. We have started to jump out of the networks and have continued to grow in and out of them.

Perhaps this is a necessary phase for us: using the networks not only as an information tool and free flow of ideas, but to reproduce hope. And that is why the internet and the networks are also possibly the most subversive event that has been taking place in Cuba in recent times. Nothing is as dangerous for a decrepit dictatorship as hope reborn in a zombie population. While it is true that freedom will not return to Cuba only by the hand of the internet, we will definitely not be able to talk about a democratic transition in Cuba in the future without mentioning the role played by independent digital journalism, by the blogs, and by the social networks.

Translated By Norma Whiting

(Article originally published in the Journal of Cuba on May 28th, 2012)
Published on SINevasion June 4 2012

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