Tiny Flags Return / Fernando Damso

Illustration: The Fool by Eduardo Abela

I began thinking about the tiny flags printed on fabric or paper that everyone used to wave in rhythm at the city’s weekly demonstrations during the “battle of ideas.” Like Abela’s fool, they have passed into oblivion along with his creator.*

However, they have reappeared in the hands of healthcare workers, clad in their white lab coats, off to confront, with those from other countries, the Ebola epidemic on the African continent.

First of all, I think that — besides being uncomfortable — travelling dressed in a white lab coat while carrying a tiny flag comes off as extremely quaint, though it seems to be more part of a propaganda stage set than the mission itself.

In the battle against Ebola, envoys from other countries travel dressed as ordinary citizens. They do not need to disguise themselves as healthcare workers to be recognized as such; the habit does not make the monk. To treat their patients, sooner or later all of them will have to take off their lab coats and put on the special protective suits provided to them for this purpose.

Drawing comparisons, a television commentator noted that the United States had sent three thousand troops without mentioning that in that country such emergencies are handled by military health and sanitation units, which receive highly specialized training to deal with such situations, which means not having to utilize staff from the national healthcare system. A similar approach is taken in other countries. Before expressing an opinion, it is advisable to be informed on the subject in question.

If we are to believe the official press, Cuban specialists constitute the main force battling Ebola, though in fact this is not the case. In reality they are among thousands of specialists from many different countries. What is happening here is that, as usual, our media is simply ignoring everyone else. This does not detract from the merits of the mission, but it would be advisable to set aside chauvinism and not try to reap political gain from the misfortune of others.

Furthermore, to label as “heroes” those who only just began treating Ebola a few days ago seems premature. The current use and abuse of this little word has certainly reduced its respectability and caused it to lose the value it once had. Nowadays, the term “hero” is used too hastily in our country.

*Translator’s note: El bobo, or the Fool, was a character created by Cuban cartoonist Eduardo Abela in the 1930s as a satirical commentary on the government of Cuba’s then-president, Eduardo Machado.

28 October 2014

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Has Stagnation Returned? / Fernando Damaso

For years, stagnation was a constant of Cuban-style socialism, as it was in the socialism of Eastern Europe. Starting in 2006, with the change at the helm, it seemed as if the country was going to awaken from its long lethargy and start to move forward, albeit too slowly for many people. A few timid steps were taken, but they were enough to create some hope that, finally, we would begin to travel along the correct path, leaving behind years of failed experiments and constant political, economic and social improvisation.

There began a process of eliminating absurd prohibitions, which pleased everyone, although it was known that the contents of our wallets would be insufficient to fund such niceties as travel, hotel stays or buying a car or house. It also seemed as though the economy was going to begin to take off, salaries and pensions would improve, and we would begin to live as normal people. Congresses and conferences were convened wherein short-, medium-, and long-term plans were discussed and approved which, according to their creators, would facilitate our secure path towards development, without pressures but also without slow-downs.

Some years have now passed since then, and the scene has changed but little: agriculture continues to lag behind the demand for reasonably-priced foods for the majority of citizens, livestock breeding continues to be stagnant, milk production is seriously below national demand, basic industrial products are scarce, health and education services get worse daily, the lack of hygiene is widespread, the state of the epidemiological system is worrisome, streets and sidewalks remain broken and unrepaired, buildings collapse and new housing units are not built, businesses are deteriorating and under-supplied, and incivility is rampant.

The list of problems could go on ad infinitum, adding to it, besides, the prevailing corruption, diversion of resources, social violence and generalized indiscipline. It appears that erstwhile gains are insufficient, or that actions taken do not resolve the problems that prompted them. It could be that, without realizing it, we are falling once again into stagnation.

It is true that it is unjust to own lands when the owner does not work them, or when the lands are unproductive. However, it is also unjust to work them and make them productive, and not own them. The same thing happens when business properties are legally transferred to non-agricultural, non-private cooperatives. After the State, through its interventions, nationalized these properties when they were in good condition and let them deteriorate, now it pretends that the responsibility to repair them falls on the private proprietors – while the State continues to maintain ownership of the real estate.

We are face to face with a reality. As long as the State, which during 56 years has demonstrated its economic illiteracy and its incapacity to make productive ventures out of agriculture, livestock breeding and industry – as well as being unable to run its enterprises and services at a quality level – continues to try to maintain itself as the absolute owner of everything in the name of the people (that generic entity) – and doesn’t permit real Cubans the exercise of real private ownership, nothing will work.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

23 October 2014

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I’ll Stick With "America" / Fernando Damaso

The official government Cuban press sometimes surprises us with some “profound” article that causes us to think. Last Tuesday one such article appeared in Juventud Rebelde with the title, “Abya Yala, the aboriginal name of America.”

This kind of gesture aimed at erasing the 522 years since Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America, marked on Oct. 12, has now become a mental trauma for some people. Just to be critical, they have even criticized the concept, “Meeting of Two Cultures,” which seems right to me.

It turns out that, according to the so-called “original peoples” (who in reality are not so “original” being that before them came many others, even going back to the first being considered human) and their defenders, Earth is not called that, but rather, “Pachamama,” and America is “Ixachilan,” “Runa Pacha,” or “Abya Yala.” That is, according to these “originalists,” gathered in multiple workshops, conferences, campaigns, congresses and summits, it was decided that, as of 2007, instead of “Americans” we are “abyayalesians.” If we follow this logic, then instead of “earthlings” we should be called “pachamamians.” Really, I do not like these little names. I’ll stick with the current ones.

Every country names the “Earth” and “America” in its own language, but for all, they are “Earth” and “America.” This is what allows that, although we speak different languages, we can still understand each other. This business of everyone pretending to give his local name to those things that involve us all, aside from being a ridiculous pursuit, is just nonsense. Besides, America, when it had contact with Europeans, was no great nation or even close to being one. There resided in America various tribes, some more developed than others, that warred amongst themselves, had their own dialects, and lacked a common language. The Spanish language, as the poet Pablo Neruda pointed out, allowed us to understand each other, just as did Portuguese and English.

This snobbery of wanting to change historical names constitutes a true waste of time and resources. Respecting and admiring what our ancestors – from the Greeks to the Aztecs, without forgetting other civilizations – contributed to the development of humanity, those peoples known as “original” should devote their efforts to making up for the hundreds of years of backwardness they suffer in relation to those who are not “original” but who, nonetheless, by virtue of talent and hard work, have given humanity the majority of goods of all kinds that we enjoy – and that many “originals” also enjoy, starting with their leaders.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

19 October 2014

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Misguided Opinions / Fernando Damaso

It comes to my attention that in recent months the World Bank has reported that, according to their evaluation, Cuba has one of the best public education systems in the world, with acceptable teacher pay, and the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) has said something similar about the public health system.

What’s more, CNN has placed Cuba among the ten countries with the highest level of public hygiene. With the majority of my years having been lived in Cuba, and having suffered and continuing to suffer from one system or another, it seems to me like a bad joke.

It seems that those who make these assessments use official data from the Cuban authorities to prepare their analysis and come to their conclusions, without taking the trouble to investigate and conform their veracity.

If they took a tour — without official authorization nor government handlers — of our schools, polyclinics and hospitals (and not of the facilities prepared for visitors), they would see that the reality is very different from the statistical data.

They would find deteriorated schools, without adequate conditions to support the teaching process, hot, dark, unhygienic and with many “improvised” teachers, and the polyclinics and hospitals are in a deplorable state, lacking in hygiene, the technical means and equipment to care for patients, lacking in medicines, and in the case of those admitted, with terrible food, as well as medical attention offered primarily by students or recent graduates, as the better prepared are pressed into service in other counties, for which the State receives important economic and political earnings.

Propaganda toward the outside is one thing and the internal reality is another.

Since I know that these assessments do not reflect the truth, I also question that released about other countries, both for and against, because I think they use the same bureaucratic method.

The terrible thing is that this serves, wittingly or otherwise, to provide a misleading picture of two systems that Cubans have to endure daily. It’s like the story of the  torturer asking the tortured not to scream because he was enjoying one of the greatest torture in the world.

13 October 2014

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What Isn’t Working? / Fernando Damaso

Photo: Rebeca

Let’s take a look at four different situations.

In the case of the national railway, the authorities in charge claim that its problems are due to outdated equipment and the lack of proper maintenance resulting from a lack of spare parts. The system has not been updated in more than fifty years. As a result the No. 1 train from Havana to Santiago de Cuba, which used to run daily, now only makes the trip every three days. For the last eight years the Havana to Holguin train has not run at all.

Those that are running do so at reduced speed and with a fewer number of train cars. When the air conditioning in one of the French-made train cars breaks down, it remains permanently of service and passengers must resort to opening tiny windows instead. The system also suffers from organizational problems and widespread indiscipline.

For years the sizes of school uniforms sold at the beginning of the school year have not corresponded to students’ actual sizes, which have become much smaller to poor nutrition. Though the problem persists year after year, the ministries of education and industry have still not come up with a solution.

Camping, the only vacation option available to the average Cuban, does not live up to expectations or its costs. Camping facilities are run-down, the food is of poor quality and badly prepared, amenities are minimal and the available services leave much to be desired.

Drinking water is in short supply in the suburb of Villa Panamericana near the town of Cojimar. Planners did not take into account the fact that project’s cisterns relied on gravity and that the supply came directly from the tank itself, so of course it cannot reach the third, fourth or fifth floors of the town’s existing buildings.

One might think that this string of calamities is directly related to those provide these services. That assumes that these people do not know how to do the work or simply do it badly. However, in spite of a constant turnover of directors, administrators and personnel, things are no better. One would then have to assume that it is the system itself that is not working.

Neither classic nor actual socialism has worked in any of the countries in which it has been tried. The evidence is plain to see. In Cuba it has never worked, not in the past and not in the present. I think this will also be the case with “prosperous and efficient socialism.” At least that is how I see things so far.

8 October 2014

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A Simple Concern / Fernando Damaso

Photos Rebeca

After years without maintenance, abandoned to their fate and in a total state of disrepair, the authorities finally decided to “rescue” — the fashionable word — the building known as La Manzana de Gomez, a building finished by the Gomez Mena family in the year 1917, which occupies the space between Zuleata, San Rafael, Monserrate and Neptune streets.

According to reports it will be converted into a hotel and that is precisely where my concern lies, because this construction project does not answer directly to the Office of the City Historian, who is the only person who has been worried about respecting the identity of the city and its buildings.

To start, it’s announced that it will be called the Gran Hotel Manzana, eliminating the “de Gomez” in an absurd desire to erase at all costs of the Republican pasts. I don’t care much about that, as I am convinced that Havanans will call it the Gran Hotel Manzana de Gomez, exactly as has happened with so many other names they’ve wanted to change, which, however, remain, because traditions are stronger than voluntarism, orders and decrees.

What worries me is that in the granite floor of the property doorways, are embedded different logos of the original shops that occupied it, as well as the building itself–some of which I reproduce here–and it would be a serious mistake destroy them, they are part of the identity of the City of Havana, to build a modern floor, as happened with the neighboring Hotel Plaza, where the tile floors weren’t slippery, and were replaced by modern floors, which seem designed more for skating than walking.

Another negative experience was the replacement of the original floors where they built the nearby Hotel Central Park, and the destruction of the beautiful white and green sidewalks Granite Street San Rafael. All losses are irreparable due to the irresponsibility and ignorance of the authorities and citizen indolence.

If it proves impossible to repair and polish the original floor, due to its state of disrepair, they should at least save the logos and include them in the new floor to be constructed, as it would be an original detail that would give greater value. It would be desirable for the City Historian and other personalities to take timely action in this matter. We shouldn’t continue passively allowing them to destroy our city and erase its historic memory.

4 October 2014

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The Eternal Scapegoat / Fernando Damaso

Every year around this time, Cuban authorities put together a report on the damage caused by the “blockade” (in reality an embargo), which this year it will present to the United Nations in October. To this end, state agencies and institutions report losses they have suffered during a period from 2013 to 2014, using statistics to emphasize the impact.

In addition to its actual impacts, the blockade is also blamed for all mistakes, weaknesses, irresponsibility, lack of productivity, delays and any other problems. It has become a kind of River Jordan, a place to wash away all one’s sins. These reports are like tropical hurricanes. Every time these storms hit the island, they are blamed for any damages suffered, from a sugar harvest which has already failed to a building which has collapsed in advance of the atmospheric event.

If these reports are to be believed, the chaotic state of agricultural and livestock production, the widespread lack of productivity, the technological backwardness of what few industries we have, the housing shortage, the disrepair of streets and sidewalks in our towns and cities, the poor quality of education and health care, the lack of internet access, low wages, unsanitary living conditions and many other ills that beset us are due principally to the “blockade.”

This blockade is more than fifty years old. What is striking is that only in the last twenty or so years that it has been denounced at the United Nations. Back when the former Soviet Union was subsidizing the Cuban government, it did not seem to be a problem. It was even the subject of jokes. It only became a problem once the subsidies ended and we actually had to work.

For years efforts have been made to convince us that we are both politically and economically independent. Why then this debilitating interest in wanting to buy everything from the United States? Why not purchase what we need in the Americas through Mexico, Argentina or Brazil? Or in Europe through France, Italy and Russia. Or in Asia through Japan, South Korea or China?

In truth the problem is not so much one of distance or of increased costs but, as you might surmise, a lack of financial resources. In order to be able to make purchases anywhere in the world, hard currency is required. And hard currency can only be obtained through economic production and export. Similarly, in order to obtain credit, you have to fulfill certain requirements and then spend it as agreed. The era of living off others is over. As the refrain of a popular song goes, “Work that yucca, Taino!”

Similarly, the problem of the blockade will not be resolved through the United Nations or a favorable vote by a majority of its member countries, for whom it is a political ploy to stay on the good side of the Cuban government. The solution will only come about when the governments of Cuba and United States decide to reestablish normal diplomatic relations. For this to happen, they must sit down and talk, and to be willing to both give and take. Intransigence won’t work here. Anything else is simply propaganda and a waste of time.

30 September 2014

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