Again With the Blockade! / Fernando Damaso

Fernando Damaso, 22 September 2015 — The hackneyed topic of the blockade or embargo continues to be among the priorities that the Cuban government demands that the United States of America resolve, the objective being to assure stable and mutually advantageous relations.

However, there is a matter that the American government should solve unilaterally, without trying to achieve any type of accord with the Cuban one, being that it was imposed on the latter. The argument turns out to be rather puerile, if one takes into account that when it came time to revoke the Platt Amendment (also imposed unilaterally by the American government), many conversations and accords  were mediated between both parties. In politics, to dialogue and reach agreements is a common practice, as seen throughout history. Pigheadedness has never led to anything positive.

Maintaining this position would make it seem, as many believe, that the Cuban government is not really interested in the end of the blockade, because up to now it has served as a cover-up to hide the government’s grave errors and inefficiency in the economic arena.

Besides, the blockade is a subject that began being dusted off a little more than 20 years ago, when the abundant subsidies received from the now-extinct Soviet Union and other socialist countries ceased. While these funds were flowing in–and even being squandered on foreign adventures of all kinds, and in pharoah-like and absurd national plans–nobody ever talked about the blockade. Moreover, if it was ever mentioned, it was as an object of ridicule–even unto calling it “a sieve,” being that Cuba, despite the blockade, did business with most of the countries of the world, with the exception of the United States.

It was as of then that the blockade started to be held responsible for all the ills of the nation, principally the economic ones–a view that continues to be maintained today, obviating the culpability of socialism as a failed system incapable of producing wealth and wellbeing.

As long as the Cuban government continues blaming its problems on others, and does not assume accountability as the primarily responsible party, the Nation will not come out of its prolonged economic, political and social crisis.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

Posted in Fernando Damaso, Translator: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

Only Half the Story / Fernando Damaso

Fernando Damaso, 11 September 2015 — A few days ago the Cuban Ministry of Public Health published an extensive article under the headline “Health Services to Our People Are Guaranteed and Improving.” But it only told about half the story, ignoring everything else.

The article mentions the participation of the Cuban Medical Brigade in the fight against ebola, the different types of assistance offered to other countries suffering from natural disasters, the number of doctors per capita, the fact that 50,000 health care workers — half of whom are doctors — are involved in medical missions overseas, that more than 10,700 foreign students train in our schools, and other such statistics. The country’s commitment to internationalism was also stressed.

Furthermore — and this seems to be the main reason for the article — it refers to smear campaigns to discredit the work of the Cuban doctors, like the attitude of some medical associations and colleges that reject them, and to the continued “brain drain” resulting from doctors moving into private medical practice.

It also mentions plans to improve working conditions and the quality of life for doctors in Cuba and even the possibility that those who left the country for various reasons can rejoin the National Health System with guaranteed job placement under conditions similar to those they previously had.

Regarding how health services are actually going to be “guaranteed and improved,” very little was said, even though one would have expected it to be the main thrust of the article. Nor was it mentioned that the salaries of most of those 50,000 health care workers who lend their services in sixty-eight countries are paid directly to the Cuban government, which retains the greater percentage of these funds.

Workers are paid only a reduced amount to cover expenses while on their missions and another reduced amount upon completion of a mission. These stipends can only be used under strict conditions mandated by authorities.

As is widely known, the income generated from renting out the services of Cuban professionals to other countries and the remittances from family members living overseas currently constitute the country’s two main sources of hard currency.

The article also does not address the conditions of our health care facilities, which — with the exception of those reserved for foreigners, high-level officials and their family members — leave much to be desired in terms of resources, equipment, medications and other supplies necessary to provide proper care.

Additionally, many members of the Medical Corps treating patients are either recent graduates or Cuban and foreign medical students doing their internships by substituting for experienced professionals working overseas. The article also does not address the conditions under which health care professionals must work, the low salaries they receive or the impossibility of realizing their full potential as citizens, all of which are the main causes for their mass exodus.

It should be noted that, unlike in Cuba, other countries’ medical associations and colleges operate independently of their governments and, therefore, are able to defend the interests of their members and protect them from professional intrusions.

It seems that because the Cuban government provides for their education, which is its duty and one which many other countries do much better, it believes Cuba’s trained professionals are its property, denying them the right each person has to determine how and where he or she wants to live his or her life.

The incentive it is offering — to go back to where they started from — just seems like a bad joke.

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A Hustler Close To Me / Fernando Damaso

Fernando Damaso, 29 August 2015 — In my distant childhood in the El Moro neighborhood of Mantilla, currently a part of the Arroyo Naranjo municipality, I had the good fortune to know and live with a character that left deep traces on me. Manolo “The Pole,” as everyone called him, was the son of Syrians or Lebanese who had emigrated to Cuba. His real name, if I remember correctly, was Manuel Sahinz Anhus.

One day he appeared at my house, because of his relationship with Carmen, the daughter of Sara “The Galician,” with whom my mother and I shared — like a single family — the large house on Rodriguez Street. Manolo was dark complexioned and over six feet tall. When I met him he was practicing boxing, participating  in Saturday fights in covered space where a ring was installed, on Route 4, near the Juventud campus, Professor Nilo’s college, where I studied in elementary school. He almost always won, which earned him some pesos, from the bets.

On formalizing his relationship with Carmen, he decided to look for a more stable means of making a living, and with some savings bought a wooden cart with a canvas roof–similar to those of American old west–and two mules, and started to manufacture soaps of charcoal and mud highly prized by the Chinese in their car washes and by makers of sweets.

I participated in their manufacture, in my free time, in a workshop constructed in the backyard patio, and in their sale in Havana’s neighborhoods and districts, as co-pilot of the cart. We packed them in wooden boxes of 100 cakes for 30 centavos, but we also sold them at retail.

When he married Carmen they went to Pennsylvania on their honeymoon, where he had family. Soon their first son was born and I was the godfather, but the boy died of gastroenteritis in a few months.

Hit hard by this misfortune he abandoned the business, more than anything because of the annoyance of being covered with ashes all the time, and bought an old green panel Ford, and became a distributor of bubble gum, the ones that came on a blank post card that when you licked it with your tongue and exposed it to sun, showed a photo of some important athlete.

Later he became a cockfighting enthusiast, transforming the abandoned workshop into an enclosure and dedicating himself to breeding the cocks, offering fights on the weekends, where juicy bets were placed. Of this time I remember that he gave me two “retired” cocks.

When Nury appeared, an employee of the Shell refinery, as the boyfriend of his sister Ramona, he convinced him to sell his job, and with the money earned, plus a portion provided by him, join him in buying a Dodge dump truck to transport construction materials on contract. At that time he had another son, whom they named Manolito, like the deceased son, and to whom I was also a godfather.

In 1952, a few days after Batista staged his coup d’etat, recommended by a neighbor who was turned from a taxi driver into a National Police captain, he started working as a driver for the then Minister of Education Manuel Fernandaz Concheso and, on the minister’s premature death, for his wife, who replaced him in office.

Then, driving an elegant black Oldsmobile 98 with air conditioning, January 1, 1959 [the day Castro came to power] took him by surprise.

At that time our two families had already been separated, with him, Carmen and Manolito living in a wooden bungalow on Managua at El Lucero, across from the Chic cinema, then known as “the house with the statues” because of the number of them installed in his garden.

I visited him several times, to see my godson and bring him toys, until one fine day they disappeared from the place, perhaps abandoning the country and moving to Pennsylvania.

It could be that the sequence of all this is not exact, but the facts are.

This great hustler was my best friend in those long ago times.

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Watching an Odd Commemoration / Fernando Damaso

Fernando Damaso, 3 September 2015 — Yesterday, September 2, China commemorated for the first time seventy years its “victory over fascism” with a huge military parade. The celebration was broadcast live on Cuban television. If we kept in mind what actually happened, we might more accurately describe it as “resistance to Japanese occupation.”

The nationalist army under Chiang Kai-shek as well as armed detachments of Mao Zedong, which later formed the basis of the Red Army, were defeated, decimated and forced to take refuge in the mountains. Japan occupied China, deploying an army of one million troops and establishing a repressive regime for 14 years, one which killed millions of Chinese citizens. It did not end until the Japanese surrendered to the United States and its allies on September 2, 1945.

Let’s review the facts.

After a southern expansion in May 1942, the Japanese were halted by the American victory in the Coral Sea, followed in June by the naval battle at Midway and the landing of American and Australian forces at Guadalcanal. From 1943 through 1945 the allied offensive made headway with landings in New Georgia, Vella Lavella, Bougainville Island, New Britain and Rabaul.

The allies made advances in the central Pacific with the liberation of the Aleutians, the occupation of the Gilbert and Marshall islands, the Marianas, Saipan and Guam, as well as the naval victory in Leyte Gulf. Both the Philippines and Burma were liberated and the Americans made their first landing on Japanese soil at Iwo Jima, followed by landings at Okinawa. On August 6, 1945 the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Japan’s military leaders tried to prolong the war but a second bomb, dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, sealed the fate of Japanese militarism.

In April 1941 the Soviet Union signed a nonaggression pact with Japan in order to avoid a war on two fronts. In exchange it received concessions from Great Britain, the United States and China. These included territorial annexations in Europe, acknowledgement of the status quo in Outer Mongolia, rights over Inner Mongolia and ports in the Pacific, and occupation of the Kurile Islands and southern portions of Sakhalin Island.

However, on August 8, between the two atomic bomb attacks, the Soviet Union broke its treaty and declared war on Japan. The Japanese army, its morale depleted, began retreating from the occupied territories, putting up only enough resistance to protect itself in retreat.

No one denies the contribution of many nations in the defeat of fascism, of Nazism and of Japanese militarism. But some played a more important role than others. The role of China, in spite of the immense loss of human life at the hands of the Japanese during the years of resistance and struggle by its citizens, is not one of the most distinguished when it comes to claiming victory in this conflict. It seems more like a new Chinese version of the end of the Second World War.

Are we witnessing the beginning of a new arms race?

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Beyond the Flag / Fernando Damaso

Fernando Damaso, 16 August 2105 — After hearing and reading the speech by the US Secretary of State during the flag-raising ceremony on 14 August at the site of his embassy in Cuba, and the statements by him and the Cuban Foreign Minister at the subsequent press conference, I think it necessary to clarify some things.

The Secretary of State used, at all times, a conciliatory manner of speech, cautious and respectful, focusing on the present and the future, without forgetting the past, but without allowing it to dictate the course of events.

The Cuban Foreign Minister, on the other hand, repeated some of the absurd and already-routine demands, adding now a populist twist, with the objective of gaining supporters: “…we consider it necessary to make progress on the matter of compensations to the Cuban people, to Cuban citizens, for the human and economic damages….”

Could it be that the Cuban authorities are going to hand over some of these improbable compensations directly to Cubans? Or, as is their custom, will they keep all or the greater part of them, as happens with the doctors, athletes and other professionals who are rented out to other countries?

As if this were not enough, he did not have the slightest compunction in affirming that “Cuba feels very proud of its record of guaranteeing the full exercise of human rights — indivisible, interdependent, and universal; of civil liberties and political, economic, social and cultural rights, on an equal basis for every citizen.”

Does the Foreign Minister not know that in Cuba there are no political rights, no right to form labor unions, nor freedom of expression, nor the right to demonstrate publicly and, even less, the right to strike? Does he not know there is only one Party and only one ideology, and that all the rest is deemed illegal and is repressed?

Besides, he forgot to say that in Cuba there is police repression and racial discrimination. It would be good if he were to ask the citizens about this, those who have suffered it first-hand, and who still suffer it (which, of course, has never been a topic addressed by the official media); similarly, the citizens of color, constantly required to display their ID cards to the authorities and who, besides (not by choice), constitute the greater percentage of the Cuban prison population. It would help if he took a stroll through Centro Habana, Cerro, 10 de Octubre, and other municipalities, so that he could know reality.

As is now routine, he recalled how much Cuba does for humanity in health and education — without clarifying that those who do it are the governments of those countries, which pay the Cuban authorities for these services.

This is not primarily about some supposed humanitarian sentiment, but a commercial one, too: with a dearth of agricultural and other products for exportation, professionals are exported at below-market rates, in a sort of “slave labor,” wherein the Cuban authorities appropriate the greater percentage of the payment received. It should not be forgotten that this and the remittances sent to Cubans from their family and friends abroad are the authorities’ two principal sources of revenue.

In any case, despite the lies, omissions, distortions, obsolete slogans, and stale repetitions, there is no escaping reality: as a matter of survival, the Cuban authorities have need of relations with the government of the United States of America. This is, ultimately, one of the greatest guarantees of success for what has only just begun.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison 

Posted in Fernando Damaso, Translator: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

Two Accursed Words / Fernando Damaso

Fernando Damaso, 30 July 2015 — Prohibition and prosecution are two words widely used by Cuban authorities since their accession to power an amazing fifty-six years ago.

From the first months they prohibited political parties and organizations, free speech and the free press, the exercise of trades and professions outside state control, and the public practice of religion. They banned private education and health services, privately owned companies and businesses, and everything that would hinder the totalitarian regime they were establishing. To achieve this, they persecuted  everything that emerged contrary to it.

As for prohibition, they banned: free exit from the country; private trips abroad; access by Cubans to hotels, shops, and other facilities set aside for foreigners; possessing foreign currency; buying and selling houses and cars; fishing from a fixed platform; the sale by farmers on the free market of agricultural products; and even the sale of creations by artists, who should always be creating “within the Revolution.”

The victims of this prohibitive megalomania number in the millions, and the damage to the country in the billions, much more than can be blamed on the American blockade (embargo). Those who have lived under these daily absurdities can vouch for that.

As for persecution, they have persecuted all, under the “totalitarian principle” that “everything that is not properly authorized, is prohibited.” To do this they have created vast agencies of persecution. They persecute the political dissident the same as the commercial intermediary, the street peddler the same as the owner of a duly established restaurant or cafeteria. The problem is to persecute, in order to maintain the terror that induces subjugation. It is not the result of a random act.

Even today, after eliminating some absurd prohibitions, they have increased persecutions. It could not be otherwise: it is the only way to keep a failed economic, political, and social system in place for a while longer.

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Another Circus Act / Fernando Damaso

Fernando Damaso, 23 July 2015 — Cuban authorities surrounded the flag-raising ceremony at the Cuban Embassy in Washington with a circus act of clowns, magicians, and jugglers, part of a large delegation that traveled to the city to participate in the affair. They were joined by Americans friendly to the government, “patriotic” Cuban emigrants, and Latin American “brethren” invited for the occasion. As expected, there was no lack of jingoistic gibberish incorporating the words “victory,” “independence,” “freedom,” “sovereignty,” and others that for years have comprised the rhetorical arsenal of the authorities of the island.

The Cuban Foreign Minister’s speech, as gray as he is, could not have been more repetitive and lacking in originality and freshness. As usual, he was stuck in the past, repeating the same old story, exalting the role of the Cuban historical leaders in the action and minimizing that of the President of the United States, who was actually the leading figure.

Moreover, he repeated the same intolerant approaches about a possible political opening and respect for different opinions. You would have to be deluded to expect anything different.

Despite the restoration of diplomatic relations and the opening of embassies, it will be very difficult for the Cuban authorities to abandon their totalitarian concepts that, at least in politics, though not in the economy, have yielded them a few results. They will continue clinging to them until the end of their days, simply because they don’t know anything else.

The show was colored with a performance of the “national painter,” portraying the red and black flag of the July 26th Movement across from the White House. That’s their way of achieving fame, because if they stop talking, you would need an interpreter to understand it. There were also some musical numbers, dances, and abundant slogans.

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