After 40 Years of Working, Keeping Body and Soul Together Selling Plastic Bags

Selling 'jabitas' (plastic bags) in front of an agricultural market in Havana. (Luz Escobar)
Selling ‘jabitas’ (plastic bags) in front of an agricultural market in Havana. (Luz Escobar)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 28 August 2014 – “I need some dark glasses,” Veronica told me one day when I ran into her on the street. Almost seventy, the lady underwent cataract surgery some months ago and now must “take care of my eyes,” as she explained to me. She works in the sun selling jabitas (plastic bags) to the customers of the farmers market on Tulipan Street. The harsh midday glare is hard on her eyesight, but that’s not the worst of her problems. “We have an alarm system to know when the police are coming, although sometimes they’re in plainclothes and catch us by surprise.” Last month she paid a 1,500 Cuban peso fine (roughly $60 US) for engaging in illegal sales, and this week she received a warning letter for recidivism for the same offense.

If you read articles like Randy Alonso’s about the absence of bags in the hard currency stores, you might come to believe this resource is being diverted into the hands of unscrupulous traders. However, it’s enough to simply know Veronica to understand that her business is one more of misery than of profit. For the four decades she worked as a cleaning assistant in a school, the lady now receives a pension that doesn’t exceed ten dollars a month. Without the resale of the plastic bags, she would have to beg, but she asserts that she “would die before asking for money in the streets.” She is not to blame, rather she is a victim of the circumstances that have pushed her into an illegal activity to survive.

Having to carry purchases in one’s hands in the absence of bags is something that annoys any buyer. But realizing that Randy Alonzo, one of the great spokesmen of the current system, doesn’t know the human dramas that lead to the diversion of plastic bags, is even more irritating. It’s not about callous people who are dedicated to enriching themselves through the fruits of State embezzlement, but rather citizens whose economic poverty leads them to resell whatever product comes into their hands. Right now Veronica is outside some business, wearing the old dark glasses they gave her, muttering “I have jabitas, I have jabitas, one peso each.”

After 40 Years of Working, Keeping Body and Soul Together Selling Plastic Bags

Cuba’s Official Press: Triumphalism, Blacklisting and Censorship

News kiosk (Luz Escobar)
News kiosk (Luz Escobar)

14YMEDIO, Havana, Yoani Sanchez, 22 August 2014 – The phone rings and it’s a friend who works for a government publication. She’s content because she’s published an article that attacks bureaucracy and corruption. The young woman finished college two years ago and has been working in a digital medium that deals with cultural and social issues. She has the illusions of a recent graduate, and she believes she can do objective journalism, close to reality, and help to improve her country.

My friend has had some luck, because she exercises this profession at a time when the national media is trying to more closely reflect the problems of our society. The official journalist exists in a timid Glasnost, 25 years after a similar process in the Soviet Union. If that attempt at “information transparency” was promoted through Perestroika, on the Island it’s been pushed by the Sixth Communist Party Congress Guidelines. In this way, a more objective and less triumphalist press is pushed–from above. The same power that helped create laudatory newspapers, now urges a shift from applause to criticism. But it’s not easy.

The original sin of the official press is not the press, but propaganda. It emerged to sustain the ideological political-economic model and it can’t shed that genesis. The first steps in the creation of the current national media always includes an act of faith in the Revolution, It is also funded entirely by the Government, which further affects its editorial line. It’s worth noting that the official media is not profitable, that is, it doesn’t generate income or even support its print runs or transmissions. Hence, it operates with subsidies taken from the national coffers. All Cubans sustain the newspapers Granma and Juventude Rebelde (Rebel Youth), the Cubavision channel or Radio Reloj (Clock Radio)… whether we like it or not.

Moreover, the official press is structured so that nothing can escape to the front page of the newspapers or to the TV and radio microphones that hasn’t been previously inspected. They are characterized by their strict elements of supervision.

Architecture of Control

My friend is facing at least four strong mechanisms of censorship she must deal with every day and which she rarely manages to successfully evade. Cuba has come to have one of the most sophisticated methods of monitoring information anywhere in the world. At the highest point of this architecture of control is the Department of Revolutionary Orientation (DOR), an entity belonging to the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party. A group of people–designated for their ideological loyalty–analyze all the journalistic content published in the country, and, from these observations, follows certain topics and authors.

The DOR is also responsible for drawing up the so-called “thematic plan” in which it programs the issues the Cuban press will address in a specified time period, and with what intensity it will do so. Right now, for example, just looking at national television we can see that there is a marked intention to speak optimistically about the Port of Mariel, foreign tourism and agricultural production.

Not only political issues or international relations pass through that filter. Control is also exerted over the music broadcast on radio stations and the music videos, soap operas, and science programs aired on television. The so-called black lists of singers or banned authors in the national media come entirely from the DOR. This so painful and prolonged phenomenon has been losing ground in recent years, more from social pressures than because of a sincere process of self-criticism among the censors.

The heads of the press organs must meet regularly with “the comrades from the DOR” to ensure that the plan of topics decided from above is carried out. But the influence of this entity does not end there. The directors of the newspapers and the heads of specific pages or specialized pages will only be appointed with the consent of this department, which in many cases is the person who placed them in their positions. This extends to the national and provincial organs, the municipal radio stations and the specialized magazines. The Journalism School at the University of Havana also receives direct attention from the Department of Revolutionary Orientation, which controls its curriculum and involves itself in the process of choosing new students. Nothing moves in the Cuban press without this watchtower of censorship knowing about it.

Promote the positive results

Another control mechanism that grips the official press is that imposed by the institutions and ministries. From the departments overseeing these entities, journalists are encouraged to promote the sectors they cover. Only with the authorization of these State organs, can the reporters access offices, files, review meetings, press conferences, the interior of a factory, or a cultural center or school.

This second control filter placed on institutions gives birth to a kind of journalism that has done a great deal of harm to Cuban society. One full of triumphalism, inflated figures, and “everything is perfect.” This pseudo-information has been so abused that popular humor is full of jokes about it. Like the one about when the news comes on and people put a bag under the TV to collect the food that appears in the reports, but that never show up in reality. This practice fosters opportunism, as well as making reporters think, “I’d better not get in trouble, if it’s good for me here.” There are sectors that are very attractive to cover, like tourism, because they include gifts, invitations, eating in hotel restaurants, and even all-expense-paid weekends at resorts.

Surveillance in the hallways

The third control mechanism makes people afraid to even say its name. The role of the Ministry of the Interior in every press organ. Every newspaper, radio station, TV channel or provincial newspaper has one or several people who are responsible for “seeing to” the security of the center. This department is responsible for investigating the extra-professional activities of every reporter, photographer or graphic designer. To spy on what they say in the hallways, supervise the questions they ask in interviews–particularly if it involves a foreigner–and whether they have contacts in the opposition or among independent journalists.

The more sophisticated control mechanism

If my friend makes it past those three control mechanism without deleting a line or one of her works being prohibited, she will still face the most efficient and sophisticated of all. It’s euphemistically called self-censorship and is nothing more than the result of pressure exercised over the communicator by the instruments of control and punishment.

Self-censorship acts as a psychological barrier and is expressed in the omissions that each journalist makes to stay on safe ground and not get too close to the allowed limit. However, the victim of self-censorship doesn’t always see it like this, rather she justifies her attitude. For a communicator from the official press who believes in the system, it’s an act of political militancy, a question of faith. So she remains silent about certain topics, to “not give arms to the enemy,” or because they’ve made her believe that “only they can offer constructive criticism.” Journalists come to think that if they question the immigration policy, the single-party system, and the political intolerance in the country, they will be doing more harm than good.

The professional who accepts and successfully passes through these four censorship and control filters and can call themselves an editor, a composer of sentences, a typist, a propagandist… but never a journalist.

Maybe one day my young friend will call me, not to tell me that she has managed to sneak a text into an official media, but to tell me that she’s decided to become an independent journalist. She will take on new challenges and problems, but be much freer.

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Cuba’s Official Press: Triumphalism, Blacklisting and Censorship

A Caricature of a Cuban Woman

Woman drinking (14ymedio)

Woman drinking (14ymedio)

14yMEDIO, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 22 August 2014 — A woman on national television said that her husband “helps” her with some household chores. To many, the phrase may sound like the highest aspiration of every woman. Another lady asserts that her husband behaves like a “Federated man,” an allusion to the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), which today is celebrating its 54th anniversary. As for me, on this side of the screen, I feel sorry for them in the face of such meekness. Instead of the urgent demands they should mention, all I hear is this appreciation directed to a power as manly as it is deaf.

It’s not about “helping” to wash a plate or watch the kids, nor tiny illusory gender quotas that hide so much discrimination like a slap. The problem is that economic and political power remains mainly in masculine hands. What percentage of car owners are women? How many acres of land are owned or leased by women. How many Cuban ambassadors on missions abroad wear skirts? Can anyone recite the number of men who request paternity leave to take care of their newborns? How many young men are stopped by the police each day to warn them they can’t walk with a tourist? Who mostly attends the parent meetings at the schools?

Please, don’t try to “put us to sleep” with figures in the style of, “65 percent of our cadres and 50 percent of our grassroots leaders are women.” The only thing this statistic means is that more responsibility falls on our shoulders, which means neither a high decision-making level nor greater rights. At least such a triumphalist phrase clarifies that there are “grassroots leaders,” because we know that decisions at the highest level are made by men who grew up under the precepts that we women are beautiful ornaments to have at hand… always and as long as we keep our mouths shut.

I feel sorry for the docile and timid feminist movement that exists in my country. Ashamed for those ladies with their ridiculous necklaces and abundant makeup who appear in the official media to tell us that “the Cuban woman has been the greatest ally of the Revolution.” Words spoken at the same moment when a company director is sexually harassing his secretary, when a beaten woman can’t get a restraining order against her abusive husband, when a policeman tells the victim of a sexual assault, “Well, with that skirt you’re wearing…” and the government recruits shock troops for an act of repudiation against the Ladies in White.

Women are the sector of the population that has the most reason to shout their displeasure. Because half a century after the founding of the caricature of an organization that is the Federation of Cuban Women, we are neither more free, nor more powerful, nor even more independent.

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A Caricature of a Cuban Woman

‘Calling Us Communists Makes Us Look Bad’

Big Brother stands as judge of journalistic "objectivity." (The text says that CPI can temporarily or permanently cancel press credentials for Big Brother stands as judge of journalistic “objectivity.” [The text says that CPI can temporarily or permanently cancel press credentials for “lack of journalistic ethics… or objectivity.’” Minrex is the Foreign Ministry)

A few years ago I met a foreign correspondent based in Cuba who related an absurd and revealing anecdote. The International Press Center (CPI) had called him in to warn him about the content of an article. Receiving the summons didn’t surprise him, because warning calls like that were a common practice of this agency in charge of registering and controlling foreign journalists living on the island. Nor could he refuse to appear, because he depended on the CPI for his credentials to report on a nature reserve and even to interview a government minister. So there it was.

The reporter arrived at the centrally located building on 23rd Street, where the CPI is headquartered, and was led to an office with two annoyed looking men. After bringing him coffee and talking about other things, they got to the point. They reproached the journalist for a report where he had referred to Cuba as “the communist Island.” This was a huge surprise to the correspondent because previous warnings he’d received were for “reporting only on the bad things about the Cuban reality,” or “not treating the leaders of the Revolution with respect.” But he never imagined that this time he would be scolded for the complete opposite.

But yes, the censors who minutely examine the cables written by foreign agencies had not been at all pleased with the use of the adjective “communist” to characterize our country. “But the Communist Party governs here, right?” asked the incredulous reporter. “Yes, but you know the word looks bad, it doesn’t help us,” responded the higher-ranking official. The man stood there in shock for a few seconds while trying to comprehend what they were saying to him and think of a response other than laughing.

The correspondent knew that annoying the CPI could bring more than just a slap on the wrist. Also in the hands of this institution is permission for foreign journalists to import a car, rent a house and–at that time–even to buy an air conditioner for their bedroom. The dilemma for the reporter was to give in and not write “the communist Island” any more, or to engage in conflict with the institution, where he had everything to lose.

The mechanisms of control over the foreign press go far beyond warning calls from the CPI. Should a correspondent get married on the island, start a family in this land, his objectivity comes into doubt. The intelligence organs know how to pull the strings of fear to cause damage or pressure to a loved one. Thus, they manage to temper the level of criticism by these correspondents “settled” in Cuba. The perks are also an attractive carrot to keep them from touching on certain thorny issues in their articles.

I know one foreign journalist who, every time she writes a press release about the Cuban dissidence, adds a paragraph where she declares, “the Government considers this opposition to be created and paid from Washington”… But her texts lack the phrase she could add to give the readers another point view, briefly communicating, “the Cuban dissidence considers the Island’s government a totalitarian dictatorship that has not been subjected to scrutiny at the ballot box.” This way, those who consult the press release could draw their own conclusions. Sadly, the objective of correspondents like her is not to inform, but to impose an opinion framework that is as stereotyped as it is false.

Press agencies need to strengthen and carefully review their codes of ethics when dealing with Cuba. They should control the time their representatives spend on the island, because as the long years pass here emotional bonds are created that the regime can use for blackmail and pressure. An objective examination–every now and again–wouldn’t be a bad thing, given the possible coercion and Stockholm Syndrome their employees might suffer. The credibly of an information giant sometimes depends on whether a new imported car, or a beautiful young Cuban partner, is valued more than a commitment to journalism.

Take care, foreign press agencies! Your representatives in these parts are always in danger of becoming hostages, first, and then collaborators, of the ruling regime.

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‘Calling Us Communists Makes Us Look Bad’

My Mother and the Onions

Onion seller (14ymedio)
Onion seller (14ymedio)

14YMEDIO, Yoani Sanchez, 6 August 2014 – Who do I think about when I write? How does the reader imagine my texts come to me? Who do I want to shake up, move, reach… with my words? Such questions are common among those of us who devote ourselves to publishing our opinions and ideas. It is also a common question among those of us who engage in the informative work of the press. Defining the subject to which we turn our journalistic intentions is key to not falling into absurd generalizations, unintelligible language, or the tones of a training manual.

I do not write for academics or sages. Although I once graduated in Hispanic philology, the Latin declensions and text citations belong to a stage of my life I’ve left in the past. Nor do I think that my words reach people seated in the comfortable armchairs of power, nor specialists nor scholars who look for keys and messages in them. When I sit in front of the keyboard I think about people like my mother, who worked for more than 35 years in the taxi sector. It is to those people, tied to reality and dealing with adversity 24 hours a day, that I direct my words.

At times, when I talk to my mamá, I explain the need for Cuba to open itself up to democracy, to respect human rights and to establish freedom. She listens to me in silence for a while. After some minutes, she changes the conversation and tells me about the eggs that haven’t come, the bureaucrat who mistreated her, or the water leak at the corner of her house. Then, I ask her how much onions cost. My mother has to pay out three days worth of her pension to buy a pound of onions. I no longer have to say anything, she just concludes, “This country has to change.”

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My Mother and the Onions

The Maleconazo and the Rafter Crisis in a Can of Condensed Milk

Photo: Karl Poort, 5 August 1994

We had run around together in our Cayo Hueso neighborhood. His family put up several cardboard boxes in vacant lot near Zanja Street, similar to those they’d had in Palmarito del Cauto. His last name was Maceo and something in his face recalled that Titan of so many battles, except that his principal and only skirmish would entail not a horse, but a flimsy raft. When the Maleconazo broke out he joined in the shouting and escaped when the arrests started. He didn’t want to go home because he knew the police were looking for him.

He left alone on a monstrosity made of two inflated truck tires and boards, tied together with ropes. His grandmother prepared water for him in a plastic tank and gave him a can of condensed milk she’d been saving for five years. It was one of those products from the USSR whose contents arrived on the island congealed, after the long boat ride. My generation grew up drinking this sugary lactose mixed with whatever came to hand in the street. So Maceo added the can to his scanty stores — more as an amulet than as food — and departed from San Lazaro cove.

He never arrived. His family waited and waited and waited. His parents searched the lists of those held at the Guantanamo Naval Base, but his name was never on them. They asked others who capsized near the coast and tried to leave again. No one knew of Maceo. They inquired at the morgues where they kept the remains of the dead who washed up on shore. In those bleak places they looked at everyone, but never saw their son. A young man told them that near the first shelf he had come across a single raft, floating in nothingness. “It was empty,” he told them, “it only had a piece of a sweater and a can of condensed milk.”

Editor’s note: Today is the 20th anniversary of “The Maleconazo.” You can read more about this uprising and the subsequent Rafter Crisis in previous posts:

The Maleconazo and the Rafter Crisis in a Can of Condensed Milk

Oscar D’León et Kassav’ enflamment les arènes de Vic-Fezensac

A chacun son affiche. Les deux têtes de série étaient les poids lourds de l’édition 2014 du festival Tempo Latino : le chouchou des festivaliers Oscar D’León et les ambassadeurs du zouk Kassav’. Le dernier combat du vieux lion Son … Continuer la lecture →

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Oscar D’León et Kassav’ enflamment les arènes de Vic-Fezensac

Once a Rafter, Always a Rafter: Iliana Hernandez Runs for Her Life

Iliana Hernandez
Iliana Hernandez

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, 1 August 2014 – A Cuban balsera, a rafter, has set herself a new challenge. This time it’s not about escaping Cuban on a fragile craft, but rather crossing the Sahara desert. Iliana Hernandez will cross 144 miles of sand dunes, luging food, water and a sleeping bag, over seven long days.

The Marathon des Sables will hold its next event from April 3-12, 2015. This intrepid Guantanameran will be the only Cuban put to the test, although before her another compatriot tried it in 2008. To overcome exhaustion and physical pain, Iliana is counting on her will, an impressive physical preparation and the experience of having been a Cuban rafter.

In the midst of her hard training the young woman took a few minutes to share the challenge that awaits her with the readers of 14ymedio.

Question: The Marathon des Sables has a long tradition and is considered one of the toughest races in the world. Can you tell us more about your organization, requirements and concept?

Answer: It started in 1985 and is indeed one of the most demanding races in the world. It constitutes a great challenge for many elite athletes as well as for others who, without possessing excellent physical form, want to prove themselves in a fight where the most important thing is not the legs but the will.

The contest lasts for seven days during which there are six stages. It takes place in the Moroccan Sahara. Each runner must be self-sufficient in terms of their own food and everything they need along the 144 miles. Backpack, sleeping bag and other things for survival become your inseparable allies for one week. The contest is divided into six stages that range from 12 to 48 miles. The terrain is desert with many stones, areas of ancient dry lakes and sand dunes. And if that’s not enough, the runners must suffer temperatures that reach 120°F. Continue reading