The Most Rehearsed Funeral in Cuba / Juan Juan Almeida

•January 24, 2015 • Comments Off

So much passion and apathy for “Our Country or Death, We Shall Overcome” has ended up creating a certain inclination toward false patriotism and a funeral mentality. This was in evidence at the end of last week, when yet another widespread rumor of the ex-ruler’s death came to light.

With this new passing, the tagline “Fidel Castro Dies” stands out from other trending topics on social media, triggering a kind of hypnosis, a carousel of emotions. It is like a wistful zombie apocalypse in which fabrication becomes information.

It is not the first time nor will it be the last that rumors swirl around the former Cuban politician. This is why I find the widespread alarm so odd. I had the same exaggerated reaction when I turned twenty-five and had to face the loss of my childhood and my hair. It seems that, rather than wanting to forget, there is a need to preserve this ancient, ubiquitous presence who, because of age and illness, saw fit to withdraw from the scene.

One day he will die, like all human beings. But I doubt it will be on a day when Alejandro Castro Espín, one of his nephews and the most powerful man in Cuba, happens to be strolling through Greece, as was the case in this instance. In fact, the odds are better at winning the lottery.

As dictated by the protocol, the death will not be announced to journalists at a press conference in the International Press Center (CIP), but through an official statement issued by the Council of State and Ministers of the Republic of Cuba. At a time to be announced, all coverage on national television and radio will be linked, as happened on the night of July 31, 2006.*

It should come as no surprise that the funeral has already been rehearsed (even by the future deceased), which I discussed some time ago. There will be the twenty-one-gun salute, the eulogy, the mournful ceremony, the complete soundtrack with maestro and orchestra. As expected, some will be dressed in black, others in military fatigues. It will also include popular participation, foreign guests and a plan to “safeguard the physical integrity of the nation and preserve order.”

Several official documents indicate that, like Juan Almeida and Raul Castro, Fidel is to be buried at his command post in the Sierra Maestra, out in La Plata, along the foothills of Pico Turquino. But that could all change. I recall on one of my visits to Biran, the birthplace of the Castros, a guide pointing to a nonexistent spot. Like a soothsayer in a trance, he prophesied, “Here, next to those of his mother, will lie the remains of the commander-in-chief.”

I would like to point out that Santa Ifigenia is not an option. Fidel Castro is not about to share it with Jose Marti. And if someone decides to fix up this historic Santiago de Cuba cemetery, it won’t be to bury Fidel Castro but rather because January 28 marks the 162nd anniversary of the birth of Cuba’s “Apostle.”

I do not have a crystal ball and we are living in unusual times but there is also another option yet to be determined and it would be during one of those Sunday family lunches in Rinconada (Raul Castro’s house) in which the future of Cuba is decided.

The Castro family (which embodies the state, the nation and the government) which may decide to give Fidel an intimate funeral and quiet burial. He is no longer head of state, no longer first party secretary, so a low-key death would not be a violation of protocol.

And as in those dark novels that deal with injustice, Fidel Castro might remain the only dead person who never passes away. A thousand prerecorded programs and scripted epitaphs would be erased in one fell swoop. As my grandmother used to say before she began her prayers, reality always trumps fiction.

*Translator’s note: On this date Fidel Castro temporarily transferred the duties of the presidency to his brother Raul as he underwent a surgical procedure.

14 January 2015

Raul Castro’s Few Options / Juan Juan Almeida

•December 23, 2014 • Comments Off

Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro shortened the 90 longest miles of all history, and it begins to melt the ice in the Cuba Libre [lit. “Free Cuba”; also the name of a drink served over ice]. It is a historical conversation that tries to put an end to years of confrontation and zoom in or zoom out, depending on the approach, to the day in which we Cubans can finally decide our destiny.

The news was welcomed with satisfaction by several personalities. The wind of cordiality blew so strong in South America that in less than 24 hours, the guerrilla group FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army) announced a unilateral ceasefire for an indefinite period starting on December 20.

On one side of the political scale, this is the wish that we Cubans all have of enjoying a country free from tyrants. A dream which, to some extent, we have not been able to achieve due to our disunity, the lack of strategies, and an excess of posturing. On the other hand: It is that to improve the bilateral climate between the two warring nations, an isolated Russia with financial problems, and a changed relationship with Africa and Latin America — especially with certain extremist groups and the ALBA countries (Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America) — with the United States.

It is no secret that the global energy map has changed, that the current price of oil has dynamited the political capacity of Venezuela, and with the Port of Mariel Megaproject wavering from lack of investors, Raul remained without options; he has none, other than to get aboard the train and open up to investment, trade, and American tourism.

In logical reaction, the pendulum leaned towards rapprochement. Whether we like it or not, I understand that the circumstances and the life lived by each one of us define the way in which we approach certain things; but realpolitik, which deals with practical interests and concrete actions, unfortunately does not pass through human rights, nor a multi-party system, nor civil liberties.

The images have been very eloquent; the physical condition of the three Cuban spies is far from that of Allan Gross, including dental care, which clearly in the Cuban penitentiary system does not exist.

What’s next?

The increase in tourism and trade between the United States and Cuba will create new sources of revenue which, undoubtedly, will benefit rank and file Cubans, especially those who do not have relatives abroad. A new outbreak of bricklayers, gardeners, restaurant owners, bartenders, tenants, taxi drivers, etc.

But in the current circumstances, with the import permits in the hands of State-owned enterprises, no Cuban can market products for his private business; no entrepreneurs in the agricultural sector can import farm implements or quality seeds to increase their production, or animals for breeding stock; no cuentapropista [self-employed entrepreneur] in the field of construction or mining, can import any machinery. And that’s not going to change; at least for now.

Other freedoms will be opened up, yes; but I see little chance of General Raúl Castro permitting any political opening. He gave the speech dressed as a General from his old office, located on the 4th floor of the MINFAR [Ministry of the Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces]. Impressive symbolism.

The government will fight to maintain control, increase repression, and the methods and resources of its repressive forces.

No, it is not the end of the Castros, but the beginning of a stage in which all Cubans have to learn how to fly using our own wings.

Translated by: Hombre de Paz

23 December 2014

The Cuban Wall and the Changes of 1989 / Juan Juan Almeida

•December 18, 2014 • Comments Off

Twenty-five years later some people are still trying to knock down a piece of the Berlin Wall.

On November 9 and 10, 1989 Germany experienced an event that quickly and with just enough lubrication sent the rusty wheel of history spinning. It was an event that marked the beginning of the end of European socialism: the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Such a seminal event did not come out of nowhere. It was not a coincidence nor did it happen spontaneously. There were events leading up to it.

Protests were growing in Leipzig, Dresden, East Berlin and other cities demanding democratic change. The government of the former German Democratic Republic was unable to cope with the ever growing number of its citizens fleeing to Federal Republic of Germany and West Berlin.

Looking for a way to ease the pressure of an untenable situation, on May 2 of that year a group of Hungarian soldiers dismantled the barriers at the border with Austria and for the first time opened the door to the free world, allowing Germans to flee west through Hungary.

But rather than serving as a release valve, it turned out to be a boomerang. Popular discontent grew in breadth and scope. By October a revolution seemed imminent.

Faced with tangible indications of the beginning of a mass exodus and widespread social unrest, the members of the Council of Ministers were forced to resign.  A couple of days later the borders separating the two Germanys and the two Berlins lost their reason for being.

This event and everything that followed were historic. There were also consequences for German unity, for employment, subsidies and the retirement age.

When the archives are opened, which will one day happen, we will be able to delve into and fully analyze the reasons why the roar of communism’s collapse did not create a tsunami in Havana.

During that time Cuba’s leaders certainly were not bothering to hold meetings. As never before, the state and government were subject to the rulings of the Communist Party.

On Fidel Castro’s orders, and without protest or any opportunity to question, an already fragmenting society was shattered to pieces. Propaganda strategies were devised to neutralize opinions coming from the other side and filtering out of Cuba. Warnings were issued and limits were set on free expression.

The ghosts of loneliness, of war and stoicism became the fuel that provided justification for the shift of the nation’s economic development into reverse, which in turn attracted cash and sympathy from overseas Cubans who, as was reasonable to expect, rushed to lend aid to family and friends living on the island.

It is virtually impossible to imagine that at any given moment a massive social uprising would occur in light of the aid coming from family members and because the stagnant economy forced many Cubans to adapt to circumstances.

The government used cunning to alter people’s better judgement. Twenty-five long years have passed since that event and Cuba’s dictatorship is still in place. Isn’t it about time to change strategy?

21 November 2014

Cuba: From Beacon to Firefly, But the Clock Is Ticking / Juan Juan Almeida

•December 15, 2014 • Comments Off

Back when I had hair and could comb it, someone from a certain group of commentators coined a popular phrase: If Moscow were Hollywood, the world would be communist and Cuba would be its Humphrey Bogart.

This did not make sense to me but years later I came to understand that the Cuban Revolution was not an isolated phenomenon that morphed into a “trending topic” by virtue its own talent. It was part of a process that arose in the midst of the Cold War.

Without trying to get into a detailed analysis of historical precedents because I don’t want to be tiresome and because I assume we are already familiar with them, let’s just say it evolved into an obedient patriotic-nationalistic movement.

More than elsewhere in the communist bloc, it became a biography (often exaggerated) of men and women who knew how to exploit popular enthusiasm and personal charisma to monopolize the attention, power, media, sources of information, economic strength and entire institutional framework of the country, causing damage far beyond the financial.

But Bogart died, conditions changed and leaders grew old. They lost their sex appeal and their charm because, among other things, the Internet came along and made ninety miles seem a lot shorter.

Such was the fate of the Caribbean’s dominant player. The beacon of Latin America became a firefly. And no matter how much effort is stubbornly spent promoting it, the Cuban government realizes it cannot revolutionize the revolution.

A recently published study — one to whose statistics I give little credibility — claims that one in ten Cubans live in poverty in spite of being employed. This is interesting because, whether the number of poor Cubans is correct or not, I believe that this level of poverty is a result of past policies that were designed by the government to indoctrinate the public, emphasize the importance of egalitarianism and counter bourgeois habits. But they had a boomerang effect that brought the crisis back to the regime’s doorstep.

I therefore find it hard to understand why, in combating the government, some armchair observers cling to old theories and focus the discussion on widespread victimization, laying the blame on fear and poverty, while ignoring the visible examples of the island’s young entrepreneurs who, though not in open opposition, turn their backs on the state and manage to escape its middling egalitarianism.

Information is a right that downplays the truth once it becomes a commodity. When reporting on Cuba, many press outlets focus on only one aspect of reality while ignoring those elements that may not appeal to certain segments of the audience. Our country is much more than that. It is no longer a society in which its citizens mindlessly repeat the same thing.

Clearly, there are still people like that but it is undeniable that the island’s watches have begun ticking. The evidence is in the ongoing, in-depth debate that, without any organized political effort whatsoever, is starting to be heard in bread lines, bodegas, at bus stops and in homes.

The topic revolves around how to pressure the government to do a second evaluation of the travel and housing restrictions on Cubans living overseas, allowing them to return to the island without having to file applications or to meet selection criteria.

Housewives, workers, the unemployed, farmers, soldiers and even party members are all participating in this spontaneous initiative without having to be convened because they all have suffered and do suffer from family separation… O.K., and because the money doesn’t hurt either.

That’s how it is in Hollywood. Don’t forget that it was Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon who said, “We didn’t exactly believe your story… We believed your 200 dollars. I mean, you paid us more than if you had been telling us the truth, and enough more to make it all right.”

26 November 2014

Cuba: Access to WiFi or When Ingenuity is Penalized / Juan Juan Almeida

•November 29, 2014 • Comments Off

It is a paradox that on Friday, November 7, the 151st anniversary of the death of a singer of innocence and virtue, the Matanzas poet Jose Jacinto Milanes, at the People’s Court of Cardenas in the same province of Matanzas on the same day two Cuban citizens are awaiting sentencing — Rolando Cruz (age 46) and Livan Hernandez (35) — charged with “illegal use of the airwaves” and “illicit economic activity.”

Of the five arrested only two were charged. Both Hernandez and Cruz, instead of punishment, deserve recognition for demonstrated skills and support for development looking to the future.

The frequency of this network, according to the propaganda in the Girón, managed to link computers, videogame consoles and smartphones, across more than 26 kilometers. It never interfered in the frequency of the Telecommunications Company of Cuba SA (ETECSA), which means it does not constitute an illegal to use of the Cuban airwaves.

The court, as usual, was forced and ignored that Law Number 62 of the Cuban Penal Code in force as of April 1988, in addition to being obsolete, has absolutely no concept of the use of WiFi connections and without a law that sanctions it, there can be no penalty. That is: Nulla crimen, nulla poena sine praevia lege. (There is no crime, no penalty without previous law.)

Rolando and Liván violated a resolution that had been signed by the Revolutionary Commander Ramiro Valdés when he was minister of information technology and communication. However, this being an administrative order by a particular agency, the men’s activities could only be deemed a misdemeanor and not a crime.

After five months in jail, under the terrorizing pressure of a process of “instruction,”the accused agreed that the users of that network could access the Internet. However, during the trial the magistrate called to the witness stand five residents of Cárdenas, who said that the connection was only good for gaming, watching movies, and chatting amongst themselves.

The invoices for the servers were produced, and these proved that the purchases were made in Canada and brought legally into Cuba. It was also demonstrated that the accused charged not a single penny and that the users had made only two monetary payments — one for 6 CUC and another for 10. These were for improvements to the network infrastructure, not usage fees.

The prosecutor — an awful neurotic and somewhat loudmouthed version of the famous Dr. House — took the wild recourse of accusing the defendants of “illicit economic activity.” She reminded the tribunal of the guidelines from the Attorney General’s office regarding the severe penalties that are to be imposed for such activities, because of the “ideological danger” that they pose for the Revolution.

The defense attorney, one Nestor González, performed spectacularly. The defense was courageous, convincing and articulate — but hardly effective. The accused had already been sentenced way before the first hearing. It was the usual: the idea is to make examples of the violators, produce a sort of electroshock as a reminder and to demonstrate that in this corporate military era the director general doesn’t want any flight of money, as well as to ratify that the Revolutionary government cedes no space.

Therefore, keeping in mind that in this case there is no crime but rather a country that lacks a legal structure capable of functioning independently from the mandates of the government, we await the sentence.

Translated by Alicia Barraqué Ellison and others.

12 November 2014

"Better Plastered than Perfumed’" Revolutionary Fragrances / Juan Juan Almeida

•November 4, 2014 • Comments Off

The uproar from the Council of Ministers of the Republic of Cuba was of considerable proportions. At a presentation of the recent Labiofam* 2014 conference, two new perfumes were introduced which, according to company officials, had been named “Ernesto” and “Hugo” in an attempted tribute to Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Hugo Chavez.

At first I thought it was a logical reaction, given that its creators described Ernesto as having a woodsy and sweet bouquet, and Hugo as having hints of tropical fruits. Some expert “noses,” however, insist that both essences smell more like public restrooms at Carnaval.

The official announcement published in the newspaper Granma left more questions than answers, and was less credible than Alejandro Castro Espín’s mechanical engineering degree. After years of using the names of both men to christen parks, lodges, schools, factories and even cantatas without proper consent, the Cuban Communist Party said through its official news outlet that “initiatives of this nature will never be accepted by our people or the Revolutionary government.”

The collective memory of Cuba’s leaders appears to be failing. They seem to have forgotten that on July 27, 1983 Celia Sánchez Manduley*, described as “the most beloved flower,” became synonymous with a useless textile manufacturer, that an ineffective building contracting business was named after Blas Roca Calderío* or that the name for the unproductive construction company Almest was created out of the last names of Juan Almeida* and Armando Mestre*.

It is worth remembering that in 1994 — the same year Fidel Castro agreed to pose for the magazine Cigar Aficionado sniffing a Cohiba Lancero — Labiofam brought to market three fragrances imported from France: colognes labelled Alejandro, Celia and Havana. As a press statement of the time indicated, “the first two are products with allegorical names for figures of the Revolution.”

José Antonio Fraga Castro — nephew to Fidel and Raul and director of Labiofam  — wanted to repeat David’s feat against Goliath and pave the way to their loyalty with the asphalt of this odiferous hypocrisy. But he did not know how to use the sling and ended up with a huge bump on his head. He forgot that the iconic image of Che, which was launched and promoted by his uncles, has its own copyright. Fidel Castro is the product, the pedestal, and the only official model which can promote the Cuba brand, as Raul has decreed

In 2002, the village of Birán* — a hamlet within the municipality of Cueto that is about 45 miles from the city of Holguín and about 19 from Marcané — was declared an open-air museum. It was crowned a National Monument in early 2011 by government decree and became an obligatory overnight stop for tourists to the area looking for a distillery.

In case you didn’t know, the profitable home rum authorized by the Revolutionary government, which according to its official news outlet “does not endorse projects of this kind,” was given the name Comandante Fidel. It is exported by the Cuban firm Tecnoazucar, and bottled and labelled with Fidel’s image by the Spanish firm Abanescu, S.L., located in La Jonquera, Catalonia.

As an old urban prophet author ot Politicaductor, or a new translator of Cuban political thought wrote: “Better I smell Kurdish than perfumed.”

*Translator’s notes: Labiofam is a Cuban veterinary and pharmaceutical products company. Alejandro Castro Espín is Cuban president Raul Castro’s only son. Celia Sánchez Manduley was a leading figure in the Cuban revolution with close personal ties to Fidel Castro. Blas Roca Calderío  was a revolutionary figure who later served as head of Cuba’s National Assembly. Juan Almeida and Armando Mestre were also prominent figures in the Cuban revolution and the former was this blogger’s father. Birán is best known as the birthplace of Fidel Castro.

Spanish post
7 October 2014

Cuba: The fight against Ebola is the new theater of war / Juan Juan Almeida

•November 4, 2014 • Comments Off

Every interesting story has light and dark parts, epic actions, and a protagonist who inspires. The rest consists of weaving reasons and emotions together by way of origami.

The Cuban government knows very well how to put into practice its habitual juggling act in order to locate itself opportunely at the center of all news flashes. Cuban doctors have been sent to fight the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, and by taking advantage of this, the government feeds the false image of having no self-interest in this new theater of war, where everything is tested, even human sacrifice.

We could see that during the recently-concluded Summit of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America Trade Treaty of the Peoples (ALBA-TCP) the moment of emotion was at the meeting of the heads of state, delegations, and invited personalities with the Cuban collaborators from the medical brigades, who that same night, October 21, left for Liberia and Conakry, Guinea.

Hail, Caesar; those who are about to die salute you. They know that if they become contagious they can’t come back to the country until they are cured or die. A hard but wise decision, because the island is not prepared to receive the sick without activating the usual chain of errors that, as we already know and even have suffered, facilitated the epidemic proliferation of conjunctivitis, cholera, chikungunya, dengue fever, and a long list of contagious etceteras.

The photo of the Summit is beautiful, but the Summit didn’t provide much. A declaration with 23 points of agreement and little money. Cheap politicking. The illness continues unabated. According to data offered by Mr. Bruce Aylward, the Assistant-Director General of the World Health Organization, the situation is alarming. They have confirmed cases of infected people in seven countries, and it’s estimated that by the beginning of this coming December, if things continue as is, the number of people infected with Ebola could reach 5,000 to 10,000 cases weekly.

It’s clear that the Cuban government wants to pursue more than just aiding and combating the mortal virus. With this new crusade, in addition to confronting an emergency, it will receive a spurt of dollars to spend excessively without needing to justify it. The government is developing a strategy to favorably influence the UN vote on human rights and the American embargo. A key point.

It’s clearly persuasive. There is no greater veneration in the human condition than for the action of saving lives — even more captivating when the effort means risking your own.

We can criticize them or see from the computer how General Raul Castro and his buddies are gaining space in Realpolitik (practical interests and concrete actions). The other option would be to equal or, even better, to surpass them. To silence, with real actions, the humanitarian chatter of the Cuban revolution, its hapless friends of ALBA, and its cousins in the TCP.

But for that we would have to be ready not only to  help the needy but also to define who we are and what exiled Cubans can do. To act together with international organizations who work in the center of the crisis. To buy medical and hygienic supplies, protective uniforms, stretchers, gloves, disinfectants, and instruments for the centers that treat the sick. It’s not difficult.

Certainly we can continue believing that we create a homeland on the Internet, or we can grab the limelight away from the revolutionary government. But that, paraphrasing the title of the bolero, is for you to decide.

Translated by Regina Anavy

27 October 2014

 
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