L’école des musiques caribéennes ferme ses portes

Après huit années consacrées à la promotion des musiques latines, l’ISAAC annonce sa fermeture. A New-York, des institutions comme la Manhattan School of Music Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra de Bobby Sanabria et l’Afro-Latin Jazz Alliance de Arturo O’Farrill maintiennent une tradition … Continuer la lecture →

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L’école des musiques caribéennes ferme ses portes

Have You Tried Cyanide… General?

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 1 September 2014 — Today is Zero Day, the fateful date, the day the General Customs of the Republic enacts its new restrictions for non-commercial imports. The measure called to mind an old joke that circulated in the nineties and is still heard today. In this humorous story, a foreign journalist interviewed Fidel Castro and he listed all the obstacles we had faced. « The Cuban people have survived the collapse of transportation, the food crisis and power cuts, » the delusional politician said proudly. The reporter interrupted him and asked: « And you haven’t tried cyanide, Comandante? »

Nearly two decades have passed and they are still imposing limits and prohibitions incompatible with development and with life. As if in this social laboratory they want to test what they can do to get the guinea pigs — which are us — to keep breathing, clapping, accepting. The new experiment doesn’t come in the form of a syringe, but through customs rules governing the luggage of every traveler. Measures that were taken without previously allowing commercial imports that favor the private sector. As if in the closed glass box in which we are trapped, they are cutting off the oxygen… and watching from the other side of the glass to see how much we can stand.

And you haven’t tried cyanide, Comandante? echoed in my head while I read « The Green Book » with the new prices and limits applied to imports from electric razors to disposable diapers. We lab rats, however, have not remained calm and quiet, like so often in the past. People are complaining, and with good reason, that these restrictions are suffocating self-employed labor and the domestic economy. Everyone is upset. Those who receive parcels from abroad as well as those who don’t, because some of those bouillon cubes or rheumatism creams end up reaching their hands through the black market or the solidarity of a friend.

It’s not that we Cubans have a specific gene to accumulate things and — out of pure neurosis — throw stuff into our suitcases from toilet paper and toothpaste to lightbulbs. The reason is not an altered chromosome, but a system that has failed to maintain a stable and high-quality supply of almost any product… except canned ideology and the insipid porridge of the cult of personality. While the shelves of the stores are empty, or filled with the worse quality merchandise at stratospheric prices, we have to bring from outside what we don’t have here. A law on commercial imports was not what we needed and the knife of customs restrictions falls very heavily upon us.

That the measures have come into force is still more evidence of the divorce between the Cuban ruling class and the people’s reality. In their mansions there is no lack of resources, food, nor imported products! They, of course, have no need to bring them home in their luggage. To stock up they reach out to the Ministry of Foreign Commerce, to the official containers that arrive at our ports, and a network of transport that brings chlorine for their swimming pools and French cheese right to their doors. The customs rules do not affect them, because they don’t pay excess luggage fees on their luxuries, which are not considered sundries, household items or food. They live outside the law and watch us locked behind the thick glass of the laboratory they’ve built for us.

Have you tried cyanide… General? Perhaps it would be faster and less painful.

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Have You Tried Cyanide… General?

Who Is Filling Cuba’s University Classrooms?

New students at the University of Havana (14ymedio)

Born during the Special Period, they have grown up trapped in the dual currency system, and when they get their degrees Raul Castro will no longer be in power. They are the more than 100,000 young people just starting college throughout the country. Their brief biographies include educational experiments, battles of ideas, and the emergence of new technologies They know more about X-Men than about Elpidio Valdés, and only remember Fidel Castro from old photos and archived documentaries.

They are the Wi-Fi kids with their pirate networks, raised with the « packets » of copied shows and illegal satellite dishes. Some nights they would connect through routers and play strategy video games that made them feel powerful and free. Whoever wants to know them should know that they’ve had « emerging teachers » since elementary school and were taught grammar, math and ideology via television screens. However, they ended up being the least ideological of the Cubans who today inhabit this Island, the most cosmopolitan and with the greatest vision of the future.

On arriving at junior high school they played at throwing around around the obligatory snack of bread while their parents furtively passed their lunches through the school gate. They have a special physical ability, an adaptation that has allowed them to survive the environment; they don’t hear what doesn’t interest them, they close their ears to the harangues of morning assemblies and politicians. They seem lazier than other generations and in reality they are, but in their case this apathy acts like an evolutionary advantage. They’re better than us and will live in a country that has nothing to do with what we were promised.

A few months ago, these same young people, starred in the best known case of school fraud uncovered publicly. Some of those hoping to earn a place in higher education bought the answers to an admissions test. They were used to paying for approval, because they had to turn to private tutors to teach them what they should have learned in the classroom. Many of those who recently enrolled in the university had private teachers starting in elementary school. They are the children of a new emerging class that has used its resources so that their children can reach a desk at the right hand — or the left — of the alma mater.

These young people dressed in uniforms in their earlier grades, but they struggled to differentiate themselves through the length of a shirt, a fringe of bleached hair, or through pants sagging below their hips. They are the children of those who barely had a change of underwear in the nineties, so their parents tried to make sure they didn’t « go through the same thing, » and turned to the black market for their clothes and shoes. They mock the false austerity and, not wanting to look like militants, they love bright shiny colors and name brand outfits.

Yesterday, with the start of the school year, they received a lecture about the attempts of « imperialism to undermine the revolution through its youth. » It was like a faint drizzle running over an impervious surface. The government is right to be worried; these young people who have entered the university will never become good soldiers or fanatics. The clay from which they are made cannot be molded.

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Who Is Filling Cuba’s University Classrooms?

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

Google Chrome Becomes ‘Legal’ in Cuba


Yesterday, the giant Google authorized the download of their well-known browser Chrome by Cuban internauts. The announcement came just two months after several of the American company’s executives visited Havana and saw for themselves the problems we suffer accessing the vast World Wide Web.

Among the topics of conversation between several members of 14ymedio and Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, were precisely these restrictions. Hence, our satisfaction on knowing that the opinions of citizens interested in the free flow of information and technology influenced the elimination of this prohibition. An obstacle that, while it was in effect, affected the Cuban population more than a Government that is among the greatest Internet predators in the world.

During their trip to Cuba the four Google directors not only suffered the inconvenience of the digital sites censored by the Cuban authorities, and the high prices to connect from public places, but also experienced the restrictions imposed by their own company on Cuban Internet users. If must have been a particularly bitter pill to swallow to try to download Google Chrome and see the screen appear saying, « This service is not available in your country. »

We Cuban users, fortunately, had not expected the American company to be allowed to access the program from a national Internet Provider. Google Chrome, along with Mozilla Firefox and the controversial Internet Explorer, have been the most used browsers in our country. It simply required someone to bring an installer, after downloading it for free on a trip abroad, for it to pass from hand to hand — or flash memory stick to flash memory stick — and to be installed on hundreds (thousands?) of computers.

What has happened now is that we have gone from being illegal users to joining the brotherhood of more than 750 million people around the world using this program in an authorized manner. Services such as Google Analytics, Google Earth and the Android App Store are now awaiting a similar thaw. Hopefully we will not have to wait from another visit to Cuba by directors of Google for these limitations to be eliminated!

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Google Chrome Becomes ‘Legal’ in Cuba