The High Cost of the Five / Fernando Damaso

The trial in which the five Cuban spies were found guilty and sentenced to prison — a place where they enjoy internet access, regular phone calls, the means to entertain themselves (painting supplies, tools for writing poetry, etc.), sanitary living conditions, comfortable jail cells, medical care, nutritious food, gym facilities, a wardrobe and other comforts — has cost and continues to cost the American taxpayer a tidy sum of money.

However, it has undoubtedly cost the Cuban people even more. We are the ones paying the high salaries of their lawyers. Through our embassies overseas we pay to support the various solidarity groups seeking their release, the members of which are also invited as political tourists on all-expense-paid visits to Cuba.

As though that were not enough, there are also the round-trip airline tickets for all their extended family members, who routinely visit them in prison and proselytize on their behalf. There are also the costs associated with providing these family members with wardrobes, spending money, food and lodging. Add to this the expenses for the spies who have already been released and who now serve as international spokespersons.

There is the ongoing expense of demonstrations of support in Cuban schools, factories and businesses. There are the marches, rallies and concerts in their honor, the art exhibitions, the books dedicated to them, and many other such commemorations.

Considering all the people held in detention, it is fortunate that only these five — members of the so-called Wasp Network — have agreed to become heroes by decree. Otherwise, the costs for both the American and Cuban taxpayer would be exponentially greater.

25 September 2014

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Another Absurd Prohibition / Fernando Damaso

Wandering around some of the shopping streets in Havana, with the objective of photographing shop logos embedded in the granite floors of their entrances, I was shocked at the Fontana store on Neptuno Street with the absurdity that accompanies us every dat.

When I was taking the picture, after having come to an agreement with the clerk who was sitting next to one of his dirty shop windows, a character who said he was the manager came out, angry, and told me it was forbidden.

On asking him why, he responded to me, upset, that it was an order from the superior bosses, adding: It is forbidden to photograph the floor, the store inside and out, the display windows and even the bars.

I smiled and answered him: Tell your superior bosses that it is forbidden to photograph the ruins that Havana has been turned into, cannot hide the reality

I’ve confronted this absurd situation in cafes, restaurants, shops, offices and other state property. It seems, indeed, to e a government regulation. Perhaps they think that someone could copy their primitive sales systems and abuse the public. Anything is possible.

But it’s not the case in private establishment, where they’re happy when people take pictures and the employees themselves will push the shutter for you, because it’s free advertising.

Clearly, between the private businesses and the state businesses there is a lot of difference: the former are pleasant, agreeable with good service, while the second, although the sell in hard currency, are dirty, disagreeable and with the worst service.

As a photograph is worth a thousand words, here I show you some that speak for themselves. The title photo is the sidewalk on Fontana, taken before the manager came out, the second is Neptuno between Consulado and Industria.


18 September 2014

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Solidarity or Propaganda? / Fernando Damaso

I wish I could be happy about the quick response by the Cuban government to the request for assistance from the World Health Organization and the UN general secretary in their efforts to combat the Ebola epidemic, but I cannot.

I am all too aware of the deteriorating state of our hospitals, the lack of hygiene, the poor medical care — provided mainly by students rather than doctors — the poor nutrition provided to patients, the shortage of drugs and many other problems.

I am referring, of course, to the medical centers which serve the average Cuban, which are the majority, not to the specialized centers catering to foreigners, VIPs or people who can pay for their services in hard currency.

A similarly rapid response should be applied to the serious problems that have afflicted our health care system for years. We make the mistake of trying to solve the world’s problems without due regard for our own. This seems to have paid off in that at least it generates a lot of free propaganda.

However, no one who speaks or writes about the magnificent Cuban health system has had to have their illnesses or those of their loved ones treated here. Furthermore, many Cuban bigwigs prefer to seek treatment in other countries, even that of the enemy. There must be some reason for this.

At a press conference in Geneva, Cuba’s minister of public health took the opportunity to propagandize about the country’s achievements and to emphasize yet again how many medical personnel have provided and are now providing care in other countries.

He also talked about the thousands of overseas volunteer workers, though without mentioning how much Cuba charges in dollars for this service — currently one of the country’s main sources of foreign exchange — or how doctors, nurses and other specialists are not being properly paid.

At one point during the press conference the minister stated that the Revolution did not wait for its health services to be developed before beginning to provide assistance to other peoples.

He neglected to mention that Cuba’s health services were already well-developed before 1959 and were among the best not only in the Caribbean but in all of Latin America. One need only look to official statistics from international organizations of the time to confirm this.

Given these questions, I am concerned that what we are dealing with here has more to do with propaganda than with solidarity.

September 2014

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Absurdities of the Week / Fernando Damaso

Photo: Rebeca

Cuba is like an exaggerated version of the fictional village Macondo,* as is clear to anyone with half a brain. For evidence of this, one need only spend a few minutes reading the country’s state-controlled press.

On Monday new customs regulations went into effect. On Tuesday there were articles by two of our seasoned journalists, who reported how successful these measures were, so much so that they had both travelers and customs officials applauding in unison. It is striking how effective these regulations turned out to be, and in such a short period of time, especially if we consider that it took a full year and a trial run in three provinces to lower the price of natural gas and distribute it for free.

The International Freedom for the Five Day — there are now only three of them — has occupied the front pages of the two main state-run newspapers. This year it will run until October 6, with vigils, marches, exhibitions, book sales, an international symposium, and demonstrations at universities, community centers and workplaces. This will include an event dubbed Kids Paint for Peace in which “all the nation’s children,” which can be interpreted to mean “all children without exception,” will paint asphalt and and fly kites in support of the Five.

It seems that all is going well considering that this campaign will represent the loss of vast amounts of time – including that of private citizens — and a waste of resources in pursuit of a new national pastime. If the state-run media is to be believed, this issue is of concern not only to Cubans on the island but to Cubans throughout the world. Please, let’s not get carried away! Remember that overstatement usually ends up being counterproductive.

As though that were not enough, it seems we must now celebrate the 69th anniversary of Fidel Castro’s college admission, the tenth anniversary of his historic speech at the Aula Magna and the fifth anniversary of his address to university students warning them of the threat of extinction to the human race. Remembrance has its place, but I do not remember any remembrance of the day on which Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, Ignacio Agramonte or José Martí — to mention three examples — began their university studies, much less a remembrance of many of their truly historic speeches.

It seems that a large segment of today’s Cuban youth — at least the ones who appear in the official media — find time to commemorate almost any event. Many years ago the cult of personality as practiced in other countries of the former Soviet bloc was severely criticized here. In light of all the damage it caused, people swore this would never happen in Cuba. Has this been forgotten? It might be a good idea to remind our young student leaders of this.

It is noteworthy that this summer, which was certainly quite a hot one, there were no new measures taken to stimulate the economy, unless you count the new customs regulations. We hope that September brings some new changes, though they are unlikely to meet the expectations of most Cubans. Nevertheless, something is better than nothing, even if it comes in dribs and drabs.

*Translator’s note: The setting of Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ novel One Hundred Years of Solitude.

6 September 2014

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Unprotected / Fernando Damaso

In Cuba, animals, for the most part, are unprotected. There are no laws or regulations that define how they should be treated, nor sanctions for those who abuse them. Flora and Fauna, for the most part, deals with problems relating to the extinction of species, but doesn’t interest itself in domestic animals, much less pets and other affectionate animals. They depend totally on their owners, consistent with their feelings and financial capabilities.

There is no governmental agency or organization that answers for them. There are some regulations prohibiting their presence, even with their owners, in certain public places, like beaches, recreations centers and others, and fines are imposed if they are violated.

This lack of regulated State attention, as happens in most civilized countries in the world, seems not to be on our authorities’ list of priorities.

If during the years of the Republic there was a magnificent Veterinary School, situated on Carlos III, where these friends of human beings were looked after for free, today the school is deplorable, and only works thanks to the dedication of its personnel, most of the time without the veterinary resources needed or the drugs to treat them, because we’ve come to the absurdity of prohibiting veterinarians from writing prescriptions, knowing as we know, that many of the drugs used to fight disease in people also work in animals. This requires finding a friendly doctor who will issue them.

There are also private clinics, where they offer to shelter and care for pets when their owners go on vacation. Today the attention, apart from vaccination campaigns or government sterilizations, rests mainly on private vets, who make house calls, or see pets in their own homes.

Public Health, with its Department of Zoonosis (the transmission of infectious diseases between species) is only in charge of picking them up in the street and killing them, without any system of treatment or preparing them to be offered for adoption, without recourse to measures that are too extreme or anti-human.

In addition, the procedures they use to pick them up are wild and violent, causing injury to the poor animals, and when you criticize them they say they lack adequate methods.

The Almiquí y Animalia stores exist principally as means to collect hard currency, but their prices in CUCs are prohibitive for most people, not to mention that pet food and other animal supplies are unavailable for most of the year.

Prohibitions continue to what the authorities know best how to so. We urgently need the development, adoption, and putting into effect a Code of Protection for this friends of human beings, which also establish the duties and rights of their owners, and that sanction acts of cruelty and mistreatement.

Until this happens, the streets of our towns and cities will continue to be filled with dogs, cats and other pets wandering, vulnerable, sick, hungry, scared and looking for food and affection.

30 August 2014

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Different Times / Fernando Damaso

Photo: Rebeca

In my far-off childhood, extracurricular organizations — whether public or private — were concerned principally with sponsoring weekend trips to interesting natural locations, cultural institutions or factories.

The goal was to encourage our love of nature, expand our general knowledge, provide opportunities to attend age-appropriate entertainment events, enhance participation in sports, arrange excursions to the beach, and other such activities.

We were also involved in social service activities such as participating in public health campaigns, collecting donations for the blind, cancer treatment, park improvements and other causes. We were interested in all of them. They motivated us and taught us civic and social responsibility. We were never used as tools for political or ideological ends.

I noticed that the Pioneers of Cuba* have recently announced changes for the upcoming season of activities. It will be interesting to see if these changes are intended to depoliticize the organization by prohibiting children from participating in acts of repudiation to a reggaeton beat, public protests against the “eternal enemy” with speeches written by their teachers, gatherings in support of the “eternal commander,” and similar activities which have been routine for years. I believe these changes are intended “to test the maturity, initiative and sense of responsibility of the pioneers, and their ability to discern, decide and act.”

The organization’s designated president — an official from the Young Communist Pioneers well past the age of her members — has also decreed that beginning September 1, the season’s start date, children and adolescents will be required to condemn subversive actions by U.S. government against Cuba, and participate in actions in solidarity with the Cuban Five, the children of Palestine and other peoples. Very appropriate childhood activities, I am sure.

Why not let children be children and allow them to experience their childhoods without imposing adult hatreds? From the moment you are born, you are allotted a pioneeer neckerchief in your ration book, even if neither you nor your parents want it. Most people just go along because, if they refuse, “the road to hell” awaits them. Ironically, most of those who have emigrated or are in the process of emigrating were once pioneers.

In reality there should be other changes, such as dropping the requirement that children join the Pioneers. As things stand now, the change that has been announced simply amounts to more of the same.

*Translator’s note: A communist youth organization with activities similar to those of the Boy Scouts but with an additional focus on communist ideology. Children enter into the organization in elementary school and continue until adolescence, at which point they often join the Young Communist League. In Cuba members’ uniforms include a characteristic red or blue neckerchief.

23 August 2014

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The Bad Seed / Fernando Damaso

 Photo by Rebeca

Getting two Cubans to agree is more difficult than getting an Israeli and a Palestinian to agree. When it gets complicated is when you have to get several to agree. Historically, this has been one of our great defects. The Ten Years War failed to achieve its objectives, not only because of the push by Spanish troops, but mainly because of the divisions within the insurrection.

The same thing happened with the War of Independence, and if the Americans hadn’t intervened we would still be a Spanish colony. There were divisions within the Council of Government, within the Army and between the Council of Government and the Army. Although we don’t like to admit it, given our cheap nationalism, it’s the truth.

During the Republic, many important political projects failed because of existing divisions. Divisions ended the so-called Revolution of 1933, making it into a farce and, in more recent times, divisions destroyed the Orthodox Party, after the death of Eduardo Chibas, leading to the coup d’etat of March 1952.

What’s more, during the Batista dictatorship, divisions liquidated any possible of a peaceful solution within democratic canons, and led the country to violence.

There were also divisions among those who carried out the insurrection, although now they try not to speak or write about them. Perhaps that is why, once they assumed power, the new authorities imposed a single point of view to which everyone had to submit, without discussion of any kind and, in addition, with unconditional and unanimous support.

This has continued for fifty-six years and constitutes the false unity celebrated by the government.

Now, on the eve of the physical disappearance of its principal authors, dooming the country to an urgent and necessary change, the divisions return and begin to manifest themselves, even in the new generation of political actors. What a shame!

The only time we’ve been capable of civilized discussion, in a democratic atmosphere and leading to wise conclusions, was during the Constituent Assembly for the drafting of the 1940 Constitution. This happy event has never been repeated.

It seems that we Cubans can’t put aside our divisions. It’s our way of living in society. We don’t learn from the mistakes of the past. The present and immediate future, with this deadweight, are complicated and place the Nation in a very dangerous situation where anything could happen, for good or evil. As my elderly neighbor says: “May God take us confessed!”*

*Translator’s note: An expression referring to a sacrament of the Catholic Church, it expresses a hope to die in a state of forgiveness having just confessed one’s sins and been granted absolution.

16 August 2014

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