All posts by Yoani Snchez

The seven passing by Thebes

The visit of seven members of the United States Congress to our country has intensified expectations about an avalanche of American tourists.  The owners of rooms for rent calculate the potential earnings and the taxi drivers dream of those chewing gum who leave generous tips.  At Terminal Two in José Martí Airport some have already arrived, confident of the early relaxation of travel restrictions to Cuba.  People have nicknamed these early visitors “the brave ones”; I don’t know if it’s for the risk they’ve assumed in the face of the laws of their country or because of their audacity in coming to an Island where, according to the official version, they’re “the enemy.”

The expected “normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States” must occur mainly between the two administrations.  At the level of the people, we’ve been in agreement for some time, it’s only our leaders who fail to realize it.  Our Nation is bi-territorial, given the large number of compatriots living in the United States.  Hence, the Cuban side is more interested in the relationships flowing on both sides of the Straits of Florida.  However, it seems that Obama will take the first step, not Raúl.

I have difficulty calling to mind a single day in these last fifty years without the warning that the powerful neighbor was thinking of invading us.  What will happen with the slogan, “Cuba Si!  Yankees No!”, with the imported shout of “Gringos” when we are all greeting them here cordially, the “yumas”?  Most of the political speeches of the last fifty years would become anachronistic and there wouldn’t be any “boogeyman” with which to frighten schoolchildren. What will the party militants think if they’re ordered to accept those whom, until recently, they hated.  How can David look good in the photos if, instead of the stone and the slingshot, he sits down to talk to Goliath.

Curiously, I don’t see anyone on the streets upset in anticipation of these changes.  The nervousness is only among those who have used the confrontation to stay in power.  Rather, I observe the joy, the hope, the slight impression that the distance between Miami and Havana might become smaller and more familiar.

Feast envy

A Power Point presentation circulating around details the closure of a famous restaurant in Havana.  The sequence of photos, apparently taken by the financial police (DTI), shows the “evidence” used to charge Juan Carlos Fernandez Garcia, owner of the paladar [private restaurant] Hurón Azul.  I stopped looking at the rudimentary multimedia with a gesture of disgust, and not particularly for the material goods shown in it.

The revulsion it gave me confirmed that the possession of certain objects is something that can be enjoyed only by those who impose “egalitarianism” from the podium.  The list of the “crimes” also contributed to my nausea:  Selling “prohibited food” such as lobster and beef; having more than twelve seats in the restaurant; giving credit to the painters to eat there; becoming a patron of the arts; paying a huge electricity bill; having a lot of cash; and—what nerve—wanting to open a restaurant in Milan.  As if it wouldn’t be much easier to authorize the sale of those creatures with antennae who live in our sea, to congratulate Juan Carlos for his work in promoting culture, and to allow each paladar to have whatever number of chairs and employees they decide.  But no, to authorize all that would set off too strong a competition with the inefficient restaurants and cultural centers of the State.  To admit that the Hurón Azul would continue to progress would be to run the risk that one day its proprietor would want to found an art magazine or open a museum with his private collection.

I feel sorry for those who took these photos.  I note, in all the careful focus on the food, the deep poverty of sustenance of those who prepared the dossier.  I’m deeply shamed that the police in my country are dedicated to imprisoning enterprising citizens, while the streets are full of criminals who snatch purses, steal and defraud.  I’m sad for the neighbors, green with envy, as they begrudged so much prosperity.  Above all, I think about the old gentleman who looked after the cars at the entrance to the paladar, and the lady who washed the dishes, now left without work, and especially the children of Juan Carlos.  Possibly they have understood, given the example of the Hurón Azul, that in order to prosper one must get off this Island.

Huron Azul (English)

 

Instant teachers

Among my son’s friends is one who is particularly apathetic who is about to finish basic secondary school.  He cares little for his books and it’s been a headache for his parents to manage to get him as far as the ninth grade.  A week ago I learned that he was heading for a teaching career.  I thought they were talking about another boy because, at least the one I knew well, lacks any vocation or skill for standing in front of a classroom.  When I wanted to know his reasons, he clarified my doubts by explaining, “I’m going to study to be a teacher because they study in the city and I don’t want a scholarship in the country.”

A very high percentage of those who choose a teaching specialty—I would venture a guess that it’s nearly all of them—do so because they have no other option. They are those students who, because of bad grades, can’t aspire to a computer specialty or pre-university hard sciences.  In fewer than three years of training, they will be standing next to a chalkboard with students nearly their own age.  Without these “instant teachers” the classrooms would be empty of instructors because the miserable salaries have led to an exodus to better paying occupations.

It scares me to think of the young people studying under the marked disinterest and poor training of this boy I know.  I live in terror of hearing my grandchildren tell me, “The star in the Cuban flag has five points because it represents the five Cuban agents in U.S. prisons,” or that, “Madagascar is an island in South America.”  I’m not exaggerating; we hear a ton of anecdotes like this from the parents of children taught by emerging teachers.  If such a noble profession continues to be filled by the least qualified, the education level of the generations to come will be very poor.  Already, a teacher confessed to my son and his classmates, when they started the 7th grade, “Study hard so you won’t end up like me.  I had to become a teacher because of my bad grades.”

Completed performance

Without the statement [English translation] made by the Tenth Havana Biennial Organizing Committee about what happened Sunday at the Wilfredo Lam Center, the performance of Tania Bruguera wouldn’t have been complete.  For the minute of freedom at the microphone it was the fitting punishment.  Absent the rebuke, the performance event would have seemed like a signal that the intolerance has yielded, that it is possible to mount the podium and express oneself without fear.  So we should be grateful to those who wrote the insulting tirade published in La Jirabilla.  Without it, everything would have been on the plane of the permitted, it would have seemed like something fabricated to give the appearance of openness.

With those five paragraphs they closed—in the best possible way—the performance.  They reminded us, the rash ones who took advantage of the brief moment of freedom, that here the penalty and rebuke remain in place in response to free opinion.  The Organizing Committee has confirmed, in its text full of insults, why so many cries of freedom came from the podium.  With its accusations they have exposed the reason why so many didn’t dare—that night—to take the microphone.

*I’d like to let you know that we are working on the full video of the event, which will have subtitles to compensate for the gaps in the audio.  We will publish it as soon as it is ready.

*Here is the text I read that night;

If they gave me the microphone… I would say:

Cuba is an island surrounded by the sea and it is also an island surrounded by censorship.  Some cracks are opening in the wall of control: of information, the internet, and especially blogs. The phenomenon of the alternative blogosphere is already known by a good part of the Cuban people.  We are still only a few bloggers, our sites highlight the awakening of public opinion.

The authorities consider the technology as a “wild colt” that must be tamed, but we independent bloggers want the wild colt to run freely.  The difficulties of disseminating our sites are many.  From hand to hand thanks to flash drives, CDs, and obsolete diskettes, the content of blogs travels the Island.

The Internet is becoming a public square for discussion where we Cubans write our opinions.  The real Island has started to be a virtual Island. More democratic and more pluralistic.

Sadly, these winds of free expression that travel the net with difficulty have been looking out from our monitored reality.  Let’s not wait for them to allow us to enter the Internet, have a blog, or write an opinion.  Now is the time for us to jump the wall of control.

The silent press

Surrounded by commemorations and dates to celebrate, we didn’t pay much attention to Cuban Press Day, which was March 14.  The news featured long reports about the selfless efforts of journalists and their loyalty to the Revolution.  Some reporters received certificates for their outstanding work and impeccable ideological posture, while the newspaper Granma devoted a ton of space to the self-congratulation.

In the same days as these parties, the North American president, Barack Obama, eased the limitations on travel to the Island for Cuban Americans.  The restrictions he abolished had prevented these immigrants from visiting their families more than once every three years.  There had also been a strict limit on sending remittances to relatives on the Island.  For the precarious domestic economy, the money sent from the United States is indispensable oxygen for survival.  In a country where so many citizens live on the other shore, the notice of this relaxation should have been front page news in all the papers.  It’s what one learns in the journalism schools as the obligatory lead of an entire week.

The Cuban press, however, barely mentioned this positive step taken by the occupant of the White House.  An official silence was the only response to this long-awaited and welcome measure.  In the street no one talked about anything else, and mothers prepared to welcome their children living in the North, but the official media treated it warily.  The journalists have been caught up in other issues: the potato harvest, the World Baseball Classic, the Bolivarian Revolution and, of course, the celebrations for Cuban Press Day.

And they gave us the microphones…

An unforgettable night yesterday at the Wilfredo Lam Center, thanks to the performance artist Tania Bruguera.  A podium with microphones, in front of an enormous red curtain, formed part of the interactive installation in the central courtyard.  Everyone who wanted to could use the podium to deliver—in just one minute—any rousing speech they pleased.

As microphones are rare, certainly I never met up with any in my time as a Young Pioneer reciting patriotic verses, I took the opportunity of the occasion.  Advised ahead of time by friends in the know, I prepared a speech on freedom of expression, censorship, blogs, and that elusive tool that is the Internet.  In front of the lenses of national television and protected by the foreign guests at the X Havana Biennial, I was followed by shouts of “Freedom,” “Democracy,” and even open challenges to the Cuban authorities.  I remember one boy of twenty who confessed that he had never felt more free.

Tania gave us the microphones, we who have never been able to deliver our own speeches, rather we have had to suffer under the hot sun the speechifying of the others.  It was an artistic action, but there was no game in the declarations we made.  Everyone was very serious.  A dove rested on our shoulders, probably equally well-trained as that other one fifty years ago.  However, none of us who spoke considered ourselves chosen, none wanted to stay—for fifty years—shouting into the microphones.

* The video—very amateur—that was made yesterday.

Translator’s Note: We are working on a video with English subtitles and will post is as soon as it is completed.

Youth unemployment

Certain stubborn statistics are never announced in the media; much better to keep them hidden in spite of their significance.  In addition to the number of suicides, abortions and divorces, the real number of unemployed are also concealed.  The news media and billboards would have us believe we live in a society where everyone has the chance to find a job and distance themselves from any inclination to vagrancy.  So many hands producing nothing, however, is the essence of a system that has transformed work into a mirage, and wages into a bad joke.

Some days ago on TV there was a short program about youth unemployment, but it didn’t mention the current number not working.  Havana, at ten in the morning on a weekday, is the best evidence of how many people don’t have a job to earn their living.  The parks, sidewalks and every corner, filled with people during working hours, is more reliable than the low numbers of unemployed reported in the annual statistics.  According to a cautious specialist who spoke in front of the cameras, many young people have a false estimation of their talents and so won’t accept certain jobs.  She was followed by an interview in Granma Province, at the Department of Socio-Cultural Studies, where recent graduates complained about their job assignments as “floor-cleaners” or mosquito inspectors.

So much verbal juggling to ignore that while salaries remain so low, young people don’t have any motivation to work.  They don’t see the appeal of self-denial or calls to save the Fatherland with their daily efforts, unless they get paid enough money to allow them to lead a decent life.  The planned “New Man” is not so different from the rest of humanity: he wants to use his time and energy on something that returns prosperity and well-being  That shouldn’t be so difficult for the experts to understand, nor so systematically ignored by the statistics.

Now who signs the letters?

Buying a car is like one of those Indiana Jones adventures: you can end up with a heart attack, or a ten-year wait.  For a long time it was only possible to get a car as a part of the distribution based on merit.  An outstanding worker, with thousands of volunteer hours or a mission as a soldier to Angola or Ethiopia, might consider himself lucky if he was allowed to acquire a Moskovich or a Lada.  Professionals of the highest rank would compete in the universities and study centers for the small allocations of automobiles.  Meanwhile, government officials could aspire to more modern models, which would be repaired in the State’s own workshops.

When the pipe that carried the subsidy from the Kremlin to here collapsed, the distribution of appliances and cars based on merit ended.   It began to work in another way, with money as the medium of exchange to get a vehicle.  However, a selective filter was maintained to get the right to buy one of the newcomers, such as a Citroen, Peugeot or Mitsubishi.  The old cars acquired before 1959 can be sold, but transferring ownership of the cars obtained for labor or ideological qualities is prohibited.  The regulations ended up stipulating that what was acquired in those years of “Real Socialism” is only half owned, non-transferable and easily confiscated.

To this day, although some shops display modern all-terrain air-conditioned minibuses, no Cuban can order and buy a car simply by having the money; they must have a letter of authorization in advance, which takes years of paperwork.  The process includes an exhaustive investigation into the origins of the funds, along with verification of the ideological purity of the buyer.  For almost a decade, the signature on this safe-conduct was that of Carlos Lage, vice president of the Council of Ministers, who was thrown out of office a few weeks ago.  So, in the midst of the astonishment caused by his removal people are asking, “Now who’s going to sign the letters to get a car?”

Brainstorm

The last short film by Eduardo del Llano should be shown to the editorial boards and the news media across the country.  In a roundtable discussion in the film, an editorial board debates which event will be the front page news in their next edition.  There are several news events to choose from: an extraordinary sports record, a falling meteorite that killed a painter on the spot, several work heroes, and some internationalist soldiers.  The obedient editors await a telephone call—from above—to tell them which news story they should favor over the others.  Meanwhile, they carry on the pantomime as if they could decide, making a show of acting as if the newspaper were really theirs.

Brainstorm is a short film with characters who are not caricatures, on the contrary, it is a reflection of a reality that is in essence exaggerated and grotesque.  A world of poses, of professional cowardice, as a result of seeing the more daring colleagues self-destruct.  The challenge for these journalists is not to have an original opinion, but to anticipate and predict what the opinion of the powerful will be.  Every good “revolutionary” reporter must know what the leaders will say before they emit a single word, they’d better interpret the gestures of the rulers and not err in reflecting them.

The short film deals with this and other journalistic miseries, adding to the list started by the now classic Monte Rouge.  Of the series of films directed by Del Llano, this one has hit me the hardest with its thematic immediacy and reference to the gagging of the official press.  Seeing it, has confirmed for me the immense privilege I enjoy of not having an editorial boss, censor, or anyone who dictates to me what topics I can cover or what importance to give them.  My worst professional nightmare would be to find myself at a table like that, where everyone’s watching their backs, in order to preserve the small privilege of working for Granma, Juventud Rebelde, or some provincial newspaper.

As in the final scene of the short—don’t worry, I won’t spoil the ending for you—something happens out there and our media continues to ignore it.  Thousands of incidents happen each day, but the disciplined television news correspondents aren’t authorized to tell us.  Instead, they show us a heavenly Cuba of successful agriculture, ambitions accomplished, presidential visits, commitments to resist and smiling Little Pioneers.  The telephone call that authorizes reporting the reality, has not come—yet—to the editorial team of any newspaper.

Under the umbrella

Many of us have come to believe that if we aren’t under the umbrella of a state entity, we don’t exist.  At the door of a ministry, or face-to-face with the secretary of some official, we are always asked the same question, “And you, where are you from?”  It’s not curiosity about our regional origin, but rather a sharp inquiry regarding what institution validates us.  When you don’t have a badge with the logo of a state enterprise, little can be done for you in these official departments. Those of us who are “independent citizens” or “self employed individuals,” are accustomed to long waits and negative answers.

In this peculiar condition of free electron, remote from the nucleus of any privilege, power or important position, I’m an expert in setbacks, a specialist in procedures that are never resolved.  I’ve been asked, a thousand and one times, the same question about the state umbrella that protects me, and I prefer to burn under the sun of my autonomy, to shelter under my own prerogative.  Of course this philosophy of “not belonging” can’t be explained to the guardian so that I may enter to resolve some forbidden matter.

It turns out that I don’t exist, because no state entity has me inventoried, because I don’t pay a fee to a union or appear on the list of some workplace cafeteria.  Although I walk, sleep, love and even complain, I lack a certificate-of-existence that would give me affiliation to a small—and boring—number of neogovernmental organizations.  In practice, I’m a civic ghost, a non-being, someone unable to show the sharp eye of the doorkeeper even the slightest proof of being in the official mechanisms.