Poor Results / Fernando Damaso

Photo: Peter Deel

The Eighth Congress of the Union of Cuban Writers and Artists (UNEAC) recently ended, yielding very poor results, which was not unexpected to those of us who have been following it before the run-up and during the proceedings.

It began with a doctrinaire address by its president, who stated that “UNEAC is the Moncada Barracks of culture” and “from its beginnings UNEAC has done nothing but serve the Revolution.” This came as a surprise to no one, especially given the presence at the event of important figures from the Communist party and the government, which guaranteed there would be no deviations.

Discussions among the more than three hundred delegates from all over the country were led by various commissions—culture and media, art, the market and cultural industries, urban affairs and architecture, national patrimony and sculpture, regulation and litigation—were restricted to rehashing proposals presented at previous congresses, most of which have never been put into practice.

We are inundated with rhetoric about issues related to creativity, the analysis of contemporary aesthetic trends, the need to rethink radio, television and film while taking into account the emerging needs and expectations of the population, to confront all forms of corruption, indiscipline, waste, disorder and vulgarity, the need for more effective mechanisms for commercializing art, the need to define and implement policies for the built environment, the need to chart a policy for the city and for architecture through national development programs and the proposed changes in the legal statutes. It’s really hard to separate the wheat from all the chaff.

Once again there were the “genetic censors,” seeking to solve problems by creating committees to review and approve, a ludicrous approach in the current context. It is evidence of generational stagnation and the influence of the exalted sayings of the National Orator—ever-present if not physically present—who is remembered as our “greatest intellectual.”

It was pure theater in which every one of the participants knew by heart the lines he or she was supposed to say.

14 April 2014

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A Law with Dark Corners / Fernando Damaso

Photo: Rebeca

The Foreign Investment Law, debated and approved by the National Assembly in extraordinary session, has some worrisome aspects, both for foreign investors as well as for Cuban citizens.

It seems that Cubans living in other countries are not covered under the law since the definition of a domestic investor applies only to current legal residents of Cuba and to cooperatives. The latter are legally recognized non-state administrative entities which may participate as domestic investors in projects financed with foreign capital but which remain completely under state control to prevent the accumulation of excess wealth.

Elsewhere, investment priority is usually given to a country’s own residents, then to its overseas residents and lastly to foreigners. In Cuba it is the opposite: foreigners get top priority. Afterwards, we have to listen to authorities tirelessly proclaiming themselves to be the defenders of national dignity, independence and sovereignty.

The claim that investments “may not be expropriated except for reasons of public utility or social interest, as previously defined by the Council of Ministers” should give one pause. This is a well-established procedure in most countries. Before such actions can be taken, they must be discussed and approved by legislative bodies (a house of representatives, senate, parliament or national assembly).

It is a process in which those concerned — governmental authorities as well as those in the opposition who may hold with differing views — participate fully. Final implementation is subject to review by the judicial branch, which makes sure any such actions do not violate the constitution.

This is not the case in Cuba where the National Assembly is made up exclusively of deputies from one party. It is a legislative body without an opposition in which anything the government proposes is approved unanimously. The Cuban judiciary, which is nothing more than an appendix of the government, also has no independence.

In spite of anything that has been stipulated in writing, investors lack any real protection or legal recourse. They remain subject to decisions by a centralized authority in the person of the president, who for political, ideological or circumstantial reasons can act as he pleases without having to consult anyone, as has happened repeatedly over the last fifty-six years.

Regarding employment of Cuban citizens, the law stipulates that an investor must hire workers through an employment agency selected by the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Foreign Investment and authorized by the Ministry of Labor and Social Security. Payment to workers would be by mutual agreement between the investor and the employer. Neither exchange occurs between the investor and the worker directly but through a state intermediary.

Though the purported purpose is not to generate revenue, it stipulates that a portion of the wages paid by the investor will be retained to cover costs and expenses for services provided.

As one might expect, there is a big difference between what the investor pays and what the employee receives. The salary paid to the employee will correspond to a minimum wage set by the employment agency, which it claims will be higher than that for the country’s other workers. Also factored in will be a coefficient which will allow the agency to adjust salaries based on a worker’s performance.

The unfortunate history of low pay for doctors, teachers, athletes and other professionals working overseas to fulfill the Cuban government’s contracts with other countries speaks volumes.

It would perhaps have been advantageous to draft an investment law that also regulated state investments (considering the many examples of bad investments made over the years). It might also have covered private investment, differentiating between foreign and domestic investment.

In regards to domestic investment, it might have included both investment by Cubans living on the island as well as those living overseas, especially since the latter currently must also possess a Cuban passport to enter and exit the country, thus confirming their legal status as Cuban citizens.

This law is not free from the burden of obsolete concepts of failed socialism, with the objective in ensuring a leading role for the state. It lacks sufficient transparency to really stimulate foreign investment and includes some traps into which those who bet on it, without giving it enough thought, might fall.

7 April 2014

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Neither Blacks Nor Whites, Just Cubans / Fernando Damaso

Photo by Rebeca

Neither black nor white, Cuba is mixed, some of the country’s investigators and intellectuals have asserted for some time now. The declaration seems to respond to an eminently political intention: incorporation into the current Latin American mixed ethnicity, so fashionable among our populists.

This tendency, promoted by the authorities and some associated personalities, instead of looking objectively at the African influence in the formation of the Cuban nationality and identity, overestimating it to the detriment of the Spanish, also an original race. To do this, for many years, they have officially and supported and promoted its demonstration, both in arts and religion, with the objective of presenting it as the genuine Cuban.

Bandying about issues of race has many facets and, hence, varied interpretations. Marti said they didn’t exist, and wrote about the different people who populate the distinct regions of the planer, noting their unique characteristics, both positive and negative and which, in practice, differentiate them. His romantic humanism went one way and reality another. In more recent times,  they sent us to Africa to fight against colonialism, to settle a historical debt with the people of that continent brought to Cuba as slaves, according to what they tell us.

That is, we accept that they can’t free themselves and we, in some way considering ourselves superior, come to their aid, independent of the true political hegemonic interests, which were the real reason for our presence in favor of one side in the conflict, during the so-called Cold War.

Without falling into the absurd extremes, talking about superior and inferior races, in reality there are differences of every kind between the historical inhabitants of different regions. To hide or distort it doesn’t help anyone. Some ethnic groups have developed more than others and have contributed more to humanity, and still do.

No wonder we speak of a developed North and the underdeveloped South, and it has not only influenced the exploitation of some by others, as both the carnivorous and vegetarian Left and their followers like to argue. There are those who, with their talent and work, are able to produce wealth, and those who find it more difficult and only create misery.

In Cuba, the original population lived in north of South America and expanded to the Antilles. Afterwards came the Spanish, and later the blacks, Chinese, Arabs, French, Japanese and the representatives of other nations of the world, bringing their customs, characteristics, traditions, virtues, defects and cultures, which in the great mix (never in a pot) formed the Cuban nation. For many years whites were the majority, followed by mixed, blacks and Asians (in 1953, whites were 72.8%, mixed 14.5%, black 12.4% and Asians 0.3% of the population).

From the year 1959, with the mass exodus of whites and Asians, who settled mainly in the United States, and the increase in births in the black and mestizo population, plus the various racial mixtures, their percentages increased within the country, but not among Cubans living abroad, who are mostly white.

To ignore the statistics constitutes both a demographic and political mistake, they are as Cuban as those based in the country, often with more rooted customs, traditions and culture. Cuba is white, mestizo, black and Asian and much more, but above all, it is Cuba. Who benefits politically from this extemporaneous definition of a mixed  Cuba? What are they trying to accomplish? to divide Cubans still further?

It is absurd that, after years indoctrinating people about the non-existence of races (say man and you will have said it all), and not taken into account published statistics, now appears this strange assertion,which no one is interested in or cares about, whites, blacks, mixed, Asians, trying to survive within a system that has been unable, for over 56 years, of solving its citizens’ problems.

It’s a secret to no one, that it is precisely and black and mixed population that is most affected by the economic and social crisis, the most discriminated against by the authorities, despite their discourse, propaganda, and the 30% quotas within political and governmental organization.

With the exception athletes and artists, blacks and mixed-race are the poorest, hold the worst jobs, are least likely to graduate from college, live int he worst conditions, often bordering on slums, and are the most likely to be in jail or prison.

I doubt that the conclusions reached by these investigators and intellectuals have some practical value or help in any way to change this terrible situation, nor to the authorities of Public Order cease to besiege them, continually stopping them and demanding their ID cars on the streets of our towns and cities.

11 April 2014

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A Misguided Decision / Fernando Damaso

Archive photo

The economic and political sanctions imposed on Russian and Ukrainian leaders and officials by the United States and the European Union in response to actions on the Crimean peninsula do not appear to have been thoroughly thought through by the West.

Without delving too deeply into history, we should remember that Crimea, including the peninsula of the same name, was once part of the Ottoman empire. It was annexed by the Russian empire in the 18th century during an expansion directed by Catherine the Great. It also included Poland and Lithuania, which— along with Russian territory — would many years later would make up present-day Ukraine.

The peninsula was occupied by the Nazis during WWII until its liberation by the Soviet army. In 1954 Nikita Khruschev, the first secretary of the Soviet Communist party, decided to transfer jurisdiction to the Republic of Ukraine. It was a time when the USSR included Ukraine as well as fourteen other Soviet republics. The Soviet Black Sea Fleet and its naval and air installations have been based on the peninsula for many years. The largest proportion of the population is ethnically Russian, followed by Ukrainians and then Tatars. In the 1990s the Russian parliament attempted to reintegrate the Crimean peninsula into Russia, but the effort went nowhere.

The latest events in Ukraine — namely the demise of Russia’s protege there as well as its almost assured admission to the European Union and subsequently to NATO — set off alarm bells in Moscow. From a defense standpoint, losing an ally like Ukraine would be terrible enough for Russia since it would leave its southwest frontier exposed to Western military positions. But to lose the Crimea as well would have been totally unacceptable since it would have posed a threat to the naval base for Russia’s Black Sea fleet, through which it gains access to the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. The Russian president, who portrays himself as a leader intent on restoring Greater Russia and the country’s pride, could not act otherwise, lest it lead to domestic problems. He did what he had to do, to the delight of his countrymen.

The West, spurred by the rapid developments and upset by the action, tried to exert political pressure with threats, instead of pushing for a peaceful and reasonable solution, which could have included the non-interference of Russian in the current Ukraine and the acceptance of its government at the expense of the independence of the peninsula and its later reincorporation into Russia, if its the citizens so decided. When a government puts another government between a rock and a hard place, closing off any dignified exit, it must be willing to see it through to its ultimate consequences which, in this case, would have been to go to war, which it was clear to everyone that the West wouldn’t do; not for the Crimean peninsula nor for the Ukraine.

The situation created, the tensions and actions on both sides, poisoned the world political atmosphere and awakened the ghost of the Cold War, which seemed as if it belonged to history. If the independence of the Crimea peninsula had been negotiated, perhaps it would have later been used as international pressure against Russia demanding, in addition, their acceptance of the independence of Chechnya and Ossetia, autonomous republics situated in its territory, which have spent years demanding and fighting for it.

The same thing happened in the USSR at the beginning of the ’90s, when it ceased to exist. The Republics that made up the Union decided to become independent, as is happening now to Ukraine. The Crimea already forms part of Russia and it’s a fait accompli. The important thing now is to consolidate independence and ensure Ukraine’s political, economic and social stability.

21 March 2014

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The Pulse of the Street / Fernando Damaso

Photo: Rebeca

Lately, I have been taking the pulse of the street by wandering around various produce markets which have been set up since new guidelines governing commercial activity went into effect. Though they are generally well-stocked and offer a wide selection of goods, they all share a common denominator: high prices. This puts them out of reach of most workers and results in very poor sales. Perhaps prices remain high at the same time there is a wide variety of goods for sale and a possible increase in production. In the current climate customers buy only what they need to survive, so demand is not outstripping the supply, resulting in a decline in quality with the passage of time but without a subsequent decrease in prices.

We see the same situation being repeated in the case of pushcart vendors. A widespread  phenomenon that has sprung up spontaneously involves unlicensed street vendors, who operate near the entrances of some markets. Typically each vendor sells a different product  (onions, garlic, razor blades, fluorescent bulbs, powdered milk, etc.) and stands ready to disappear at the first sign of inspectors or other government agents.

Another notable development has been the closure by authorities of some private businesses such as family-run restaurants, cafes and  sweet shops, which had been operating for some time but which were accused of illegal activities such as buying supplies on the black market or having more employees than is allowable. Others have been shut down for poor sanitary conditions. These developments, along with the previous closure of private in-home 3D movie theaters, have darkened the mood in the neighborhoods, which seem to be waking up from their long, paralytic lethargy and questioning the so-called economic “updating.”

Given the way things work, however, we have already seen the beginning of the propaganda campaign leading to the upcoming May 1 commemoration, in which “all Cuba will shake from workers marching,” none of them with grievances and happy as always with their prosperous and sustainable socialist present and future.

3 April 2014

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Use and Abuse of the Lab Coat / Fernando Damaso

During my childhood, adolescence, youth and young adulthood, doctors wore their lab coats only when they were working in hospitals, clinics and other health care facilities, and only for hygienic reasons. They were intended to help prevent the spread of germs between doctor and patient. On the street and in public places they dressed like anyone else of their social class. This seemed to be the case in the rest of the world as well, judging from films and television programs which portrayed medical personnel. 

In my country, however, lab coats seem to have become a kind of second skin, an official uniform for doctors, who never take them off. They wear them when walking from place to place and on buses, in commercial establishments and in the management offices of state enterprises and institutions. They were the damn things in preparation for travel to countries where they provide cheap labor, in assembly rooms where they receive their political and professional “orientation,” and even as they get on and off the planes taking them to their final destinations.

Undoubtedly, this use and abuse of the lab coat is not a coincidence but rather a response to political objectives. It serves as a propaganda tool, intended for both domestic and international audiences, which is used to promote one of the most important “achievements” of the regime.

The lab coat, which is worn at all hours of the day, seems to define the personality of our doctors. In Cuban TV news reports they are always seen wearing them, even when travelling on foot through fields and mountains, or on boats on rivers and lakes. They wear them in groups, “moving towards the bright future” together, as in old Soviet-bloc propaganda posters illustrating “the path towards communism.”

It would be desirable if lab coats were once again used for the purposes they were originally intended, which was for the well-being of doctors and their patients. Moreover, they would undoubtedly last much longer.

30 March 2014

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Only Versions / Fernando Damaso

During these last few weeks we have “enjoyed” to the point of boredom the Russian version of events in Ukraine and in Crimea, and the Chavez version of the situation in Venezuela. In the first case, we have heard and read what has been said by the Russian President, Prime Minister and Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defense, and even by the deposed Ukrainian President who has been granted asylum in Russia, but we have heard absolutely nothing of what the new authorities of that country think.

In the second case, the same has happened, i.e. we have heard from the President and his Minister of Foreign Affairs, but nothing from the opponents or students participating in protests and violence. In both cases, as is now usual, opponents have been labeled fascists (which has become fashionable), marginal extremists, terrorists and even traitors to their respective countries.

I do not hold our press solely responsible for this misinformation and distorted information, because it only obediently does as ordered by the authorities who for years have unconditionally supported anything that goes against the United States and the European Union, no matter where it comes from or who promotes it.

It is ironic being a people so politically educated, how our leaders never tire of repeating themselves, they hide information from us and do not allow us to analyze it and draw our own conclusions. Perhaps it is with a patronizing intent that we not lose time thinking, which is something they already do for us, and we can devote ourselves fully to our main and only task: to try to survive.

Fortunately, in the real world, despite prohibitions and restrictions, preventing access to information is practically impossible, since it is obtained from different sources.  The thing that offends is that though we are adults, they attempt to treat us like children, feeding us only ideological babyfood, let us reach higher!

Translated by Yoly from Oly

26 March 2014

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