March 2009

Of Reforms And Failures

The renowned Cuban blogger speaks about the rising stagnation on the island.

By Yoani Sánchez

An unidentified girl wipes her eyes from dust as she stands by a building where the interior had collapsed in Old Havana. The Communist Party’s paper Granma reported that more than one-tenth of the housing units in Cuba’s capital are in irrepairable condition


Even as the word “change” resounds from the voice of Barack Obama and that of his constituents, we Cubans have quit conjugating the dynamic verb. Throughout the long months of 2008, on the streets of our cities and towns, there was a recurrent topic: the reforms that new leader Raúl Castro would put in place. The illusion began taking form on that July 31st when his brother’s illness was made public and it fell upon him—the eternal number two—to seize the helm of the ship. He came to power preceded by his aura of practicality, which was the source of his political capital, and so there was little of the flowery and fiery oratory for which Fidel Castro is known. With his seventy-six years, he can only hope to win the support of the people by means of a series of long waited measures.

Like those antiquated mansions of Old Havana, still miraculously standing by mere force of gravity, the actual Cuban condition is such that if you removed a single nail the whole edifice might come tumbling down. But which stud’s removal would lead to the disintegration of the old architecture of control and restrictions in which we live? Nobody knows, but the decrepit building no longer permits restorations. The principal adversaries of the Raulista mandate are the citizens’ pocketbooks which have been trapped in a long existent schizophrenia since 1993. The country is divided between the Cuban peso with which salaries are paid, and the so-called “chavitos” needed to buy the majority of things. Revaluing the national currency in relation to the other that comes by way of remittances, illegal labor and the black market, looks like something all have a stake in.

The wish list is not limited to raising the value of those little colored pieces of paper with which we are paid for our work, but includes other delicate aspects of the Cuban reality. The ground floor, for example, now falling apart and with the smallest growth in the last decades, points to how the new government should legalize the buying and selling of homes. The necessary easing of migratory travel restrictions is another pressing need for a population that every day lives out the drama of familial separation. In the countryside, farmers ask for new agrarian reform and the right to commercialize their products without the shadow of government falling over their transactions. Every consumer that collides daily with inefficiency of internal commerce thinks that opening small or midsized private businesses could improve services and the quality of merchandise.

One impertinent group goes even further and demands civil liberties. These are the ones who want to meet freely, be that as a political party or as a stamp collecting club. They also want to put their ideas in writing and to publish them without this constituting a crime of “enemy propaganda.” They dream of having a few minutes on the radio or on television to explain their agendas for change without there being reprisals for doing so. Nevertheless, almost a year since the takeover of power by Raúl Castro, practically nothing has improved in that area. The hoped for changes have been reduced to being allowed to buy a cell phone or to stay in a hotel, services previously reserved for tourists.

The impact of the few measures that were taken have scarcely been visible on the kitchen table or in people’s pocketbooks, and far less so in the field of civil liberties. They appear to be, to the eye of many Cubans, like that last paint job for that old mansion in ruins when everyone knows that the decay within is irreparable. Like an aging bricklayer, conservative and fearful, Raúl Castro knows that if he opens the doors and windows too far, allowing for the necessary changes, the ceiling and the floor are going to collapse.

Desde Cuba With Yoani Sánchez
An Interview By Ted Henken

In April 2007, Havana native Yoani Sánchez began to blog, offering up “brief sketches of my daily reality.” Now two years later, that blog—Generacion Y—has not only won Spain’s prestigious Ortega y Gasset award, but it has come to be relied upon internationally as perhaps the best source of information from Cuba.

“Generación Y is a blog inspired by people like me,” Sanchez explains, “with names that begin with or contain the letter ‘Y.’ We were born in the Cuba of the 1970s and 80s, marked by the experience of rural boarding schools, Russian cartoons on TV, illegal departures, and frustration. So, I especially invite Yanisledi, Yoandri, Yusimi, Yuniesky, and others who must drag around their own ‘Ys’ to read what I write and write me back.”

“Perhaps more than all else, my blog is about questioning. I question why the reality we live with in today’s Cuba is nothing like what we were promised when we were children; why this social project that my and my parents’ generations dreamed of was never realized.”

In your blog, you call for “a pluralistic, respectful, and serious tone.” You criticize Cuba’s political culture of “verbal violence.” Explain what you mean.

I refuse to use incendiary language, defamation, or harangues, because that only exacerbates the cycle of intolerance that is an obstacle to reasoned debate. Cuba is a very diverse country. You walk out into the street, and you not only find diversity of races but also of opinions. The official press spends all its time trying to make us believe that this is a very monolithic country, that we all think the same, and it does so with a dose of revolutionary violence and ideological aggressiveness that is paralyzing. We have to find a way to put a stop to this never-ending cycle, to this spiral of aggression that is very characteristic of Cuban journalism.

[TH] What obstacles exist for Cubans to access your blog and how have you overcome them?

[YS] The Cuban government has “filtered” the entire DesdeCuba.com website from all public Internet sites and hotels in order to prevent us from updating our site. This has obliged us to develop what I like to call a “citizen network,” outside Cuba, of people who help us post (and translate) our texts. I have not even been able to see my own blog since the last week of March. I am a “blind blogger,” you might say. Of course, that sounds quite strange, but that’s Cuba. In Cuba reality is often a lot like science fiction. I send my texts by e-mail. Cubans who live on the outside post them. And in return they send me the readers’ comments.

[TH] Why do you write a blog if Cuba’s connectivity is so low?

[YS] In Cuba, the Internet works differently. The web has a way of slipping through the fingers of the Cuban censors. There isn’t a simple way they can stop us from posting a text online. This is as new a phenomenon for them as it is for us. Fortunately for us, technology evolves faster then censorship. This is how both Generación Y and DesdeCuba survive—through the solidarity of people who we don’t even know but who have decided to support our endeavor.

[TH] What about the relationship between Cuba and the United States?

[YS] I believe that this conflict is stuck on automatic pilot. No one wants to sit down and dialogue. That leaves us trapped in the middle, the Cubans on one side and the North Americans on the other Still, The U.S. election generated more expectation in Cuba than our own elections did last February, perhaps because Obama does not fit the traditional role of the ‘enemy.’ That is important because in Cuba the political discourse is sustained by the supposed existence of a “wolf,” a wolf with sharpened teeth that will come eat us all one day. And if one fine day, the wolf is no longer so aggressive and no longer plays the role of the enemy, I think that Little Red Riding Hood won’t be so convincing. But nobody can have as much influence on the changes in Cuba as we Cubans ourselves. What happens in the United States could help us or hurt us, but we Cubans are the ones who must decide for how much longer we are going to allow a group of people to govern us who don’t represent us.


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