An Intelligent Accord / Fernando Damaso

Finally, after more than fifty years of tensions, contradictions, offenses and mutual aggressions, the governments of Cuba and the United States have reached agreements that demonstrate intelligence and a sense of responsibility on both sides, the primary accord being the reestablishment of diplomatic relations.

This first step has required the efforts of various personalities and governments, strikingly among them the work of Pope Francis and the government of Canada, as well as others which have not been mentioned specifically.

The freeing of prisoners here and there, which was a minor obstacle (although for years it has been inflated and used for propaganda in the national circus) became a springboard for what was truly important. Now today, in spite of the outdated revolutionary rhetoric to which our authorities are addicted, they have faded to the background, outshone by the truly transcendent news. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we will be free of seeing them on our TV screens, like test patterns, for the next few days. This seems to be a necessary evil.

It’s no secret to anybody that, for a long time now, this decision has been in the works undercover. The build-up of telltale signs was significant. Besides, both the US president, with the setbacks suffered in the so-called mid-term elections which showed his loss of popularity — and the Cuban president, with a country in spiraling crisis and with no truly effective measures to resolve problems nor generous sponsors to give a hand — were edging ever closer to their respective abysses.

The decision that was reached deserves plaudits, not only for what it represents at this time, but also for what it promises, because it will open the way for other fundamental economic, political and social steps in the right direction. To maintain the change announced from this dialogue and the common actions to be taken for the wellbeing of both people, should be the priority of each day.

This will require mutual consideration, the elimination of insults and offensive statements from public statements, respect for differences of all kinds, and a true climate of liberty for all Cubans.

May intelligence and responsibility continue to be at the forefront!

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

18 December 2014

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An Epidemic of Editorials / Fernando Damaso

Archive photo


A few days ago the sixth editorial by the New York Times appeared regarding relations between the Cuban and North American governments. I believe that never has a country so small and relatively unimportant merited so much – and such sustained – attention. This smells of strange interests on both shores.

The editorial writer who undoubtedly pulls down an annual salary in the five figures, must feel fulfilled. It is said, although I cannot confirm it, that he was over here seeking official information for his writings. This would not be surprising.

To cast blame on the embargo for all of Cuba’s problems — even for the exodus of our professionals lured by United States government policies — lacks originality. It is merely repeating the same worn arguments made by the Cuban government during almost 56 years in order to sweep under the rug its own errors, economic failures, misguided adventures, blunders, etc., which have resulted in the prolonged political, economic and social crisis that Cuba endures.

It is true that artists, sports figures, doctors and many other professionals seize the slightest opportunity to leave the country in search of better living conditions. The majority of our youth do this, too. But this does not occur only because North American government policies offers them incentives them do do so.

Rather, it is the terrible situation in their country: no housing, miserable salaries — even after raises — and, what’s worse, no real opportunities for bettering their circumstances.  Every human being has but one life to live, and it cannot be squandered believing in outdated lectures about the future — always about the future — when what is truly important is the present. This is a concept that apparently eludes the editorial writer.

What’s more, if we truly look at reality, only a portion of Cuba’s medical missions abroad are provided freely. The majority are paid-for by the governments of countries that benefit — a juicy business for the Cuban authorities, who even describe them as better revenue-generators than sugar harvests because they provide greater sums of foreign currency. Between 60 and 75 per cent of the total salary payments made by these governments for the services of Cuban doctors remain in the hands of the State, which then apportions the remainder as wages — and even that comes not entirely as hard cash, but rather as rights for obtaining housing or consumer goods, at the artificially high prices set by the State. Something similar happens with artists and sports figures working abroad.

In any event, although many of these professionals leave the country, the Cuban authorities never lose. This is because after the emigres settle in other countries, they begin sending monetary remittances to their relatives, who then spend them primarily in government establishments where the prices are set high, the stated objective being to maximize the collection of foreign currency.

The editorials will continue and the official Cuban press will go on reprinting them in their entirety, down to the last comma and period. It would be helpful if those who influence public policy and public opinion, whether from the inside or the outside, would not allow themselves to be misled.

Nobody is against change, and even less so if such change were to lead to the restoration of normal relations between the governments. However, this cannot be achieved on the backs of the Cuban people without their true and complete participation.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

21 November 2014

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Where There’s Smoke / Fernando Damaso

For months Cuban authorities have been waging an intense campaign to end the blockade (or embargo) imposed by the US government against the Cuban government. Among Cuba’s demands are the release of three spies now serving time in US jails and removal of the country from the list of states that sponsor terrorism.

All this is in the context of an “invitation to the government of the United States to a mutually respectful relationship based on reciprocity, sovereign equality, the principles of international law and the United Nations Charter,” in the wording of a speech by the Cuban foreign minister at the sixty-ninth session of the UN General Assembly in New York on October 28, 2014.

Moreover, in recent weeks the New York Times has published several editorials in support of the same position, which have been reproduced verbatim by Cuba’s government-run press — something never seen before — which has added its own severe criticism of civil society, accusing it among other things of corruption.

The convergence of opinion among Cuban authorities, the New York Times and some political, business and social figures of the United States is striking. It is no secret, though the parties involved refrain from confirming it, that something has long been cooking behind the backs or with the participation of only some members of Cuba’s civil society.

At the end of the 19th century the governments of the United States and Spain signed the Treaty of Paris, which ended hostilities in Cuba as well as Spanish control over the island. Neither the Cubans who had launched the initial revolt nor their political representatives took part in the treaty negotiations. This weighed heavily on Cuban-American relations during the era of the Cuban Republic and was considered by many responsible Cubans to be a politic mistake on the part of our neighbor to the north.

Trying to resolve the dispute between the governments of the United States and Cuba today, well into the 21st century, without the participation of Cubans who are neither part of the government nor in agreement with it would be making the same mistake twice.

The desires of Cuba’s current leaders to prolong the life of their failed system — albeit with surface embellishments and new faces — and the interests of certain American political figures cannot take precedence over the interests of the majority of the Cuban people who, unable to truly exercise their democratic rights, are hoping and fighting for real change.

12 November 2014

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A New Anniversary / Fernando Damaso

It’s 495 years since the founding of Havana. Celebration after celebration is being held, however, the serious problem of lack of housing grows every day, without any real chances of a solution. The causes of it are many and the results extremely well-known.

According to official data there are 33,889 nuclear families in Havana who need housing, a total of 132,699 people. To these they should add that many of those families have spent 10, 15, 20 and more years living in shelters with and without minimal conditions, where children and even grandchildren have been born.

Lately there’s been a plan to resolve the situation with the construction of urban settlements in different parts of the city, consisting of groups of affordable apartment buildings.

In 2013, 746 of these apartments were built, and in 2014, 817 have been completed, and in the rest of the year 566 are expected for a total of 1,383. In 2015 it’s estimated that 1,480 will be built in that and following years, in line with the economic possibilities and the availability of materials and labor.

As the figures, are sometimes confusing, it is necessary to apply mathematics to understand them: 33,889 nuclear families between 1,500 annual apartments means it will take at least 22 years to resolve the problem.

If to this we add that, according to official data, every day in the city three buildings collapse, for a total of 1,095 annually, so in reality it would leave 405 of the estimated 1,500 buildings, because the other 1,095 would simply compensate for those that disappeared.

With this new data, it would then take 83 years. So this alone is not the solution.

So if you add to these affordable apartments come with a cement floor and the kitchen and bath aren’t completely tiled, leaving in the hands of the tenants, according to their personal means and interests, to improve the level of finishing, adding to that the construction defects that they present (cracks in the floors, damp walls, leaks, etc), the problem increases.

While domestic and foreign private investment in real estate is not authorized, and citizens, because of their low salaries and the high cost of building materials, lack the opportunities of building their own homes, it will be more of the same, and next year Havana will celebrate the anniversary of its founding in worse conditions than today.

17 November 2014

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Extremism on the Table / Fernando Damaso

On the page 2 of the November 7th Granma, there is an article by the journalist Pedro de la Hoz, who is now also one of the vice presidents of the Cuban Writers and Artists Union (UNEAC), where, honoring his last name (in English ’hoz’ means ’sickle’), railing against the recent celebrations in Havana of a cheerleading event, the celebration of Halloween in some recreation centers with the participation of costumed young people, and even the wearing of clothing with the American flag.

The character, calling on crossover Stalinist-style ideology, shouts to the heavens speaking of banality, sexism and sentimental silliness, asserts his right to expound on his arguments and judge those who don’t think like he does.

All correct: everyone can think as he likes and defend his opinions, which is not a very common practice in Cuba, where the media only publishes those characters with ties to the regime, among which the man in question is an example.

It struck me that de la Hoz, so concerned about foreign influences, although he recognizes that we live in a global village, has never defended Cuban traditions related to Holy Week, Christmas Eve, Christmas, seeing out the old year and seeing in the new (without additional ideological elements) and, in the case of Havana, the celebration of Carnival, which has been totally lost and has nothing to do with the current booze and food binge, to name just a few.

I don’t think that celebrating Halloween, practicing cheerleading, wearing a shirt or short with the stars and stripes and even celebrating Thanksgiving threatens national identity. Working against our national identity is forgetting our customs and traditions, social indiscipline, lack of respect, rude language, and generalized marginality, street violence, corruption, double standards, opportunism and many other evils.

Hopefully the recent article doesn’t unleash some new witch hunt.

7 November 2014

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From Columns to Bars / Fernando Damaso

Photos by Rebeca

Some years ago Alejo Carpentier wrote a column which he called “Havana, A City of Columns.” The proliferation of colonnades along our major streets once caught the attention of anyone who visited the city, though they seem perfectly normal to those of us living here.

They protected us from the scorching sun and the torrential rains. You could walk under them almost uninterrupted along major thoroughfares such as Monte, Reina, Galiano, Belascoaín, Jesús del Monte and Jesús del Cerro except when you had to cross the street.

Today everything has changed. The columns have collapsed and with them many of the colonnades. Others have been closed to pedestrian traffic by residential and business occupants, who set up walls and metal fences as they see fit, in violation of regulations governing public ornamentation and city planning.

While this is troubling, what is even worse is that Havana is no longer the city of columns but rather the city of burglar bars. They are like marabou weed in the countryside, spreading everywhere. Bars of all types can found on residences, shops, businesses, schools, parks, fountains, cafes, restaurants and kiosks, disfiguring the city and making it seem like one big jail.

Paradoxically, when we were uneducated and poor — according to authorities — property was respected and there was no need for bars. Now that we are civilized and there is no poverty — again according to authorities — there is no respect for property and bars are everywhere.

As the saying goes, it seems the violin is for one thing and the guitar for quite another. The concept that everything belongs both to everyone and to no one is as complicated and difficult to understand as the mystery of the Holy Trinity. For your enjoyment, I have interspersed some photos of various types of metal bars.

7 November 2014

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Virtual Reality? / Fernando Damaso

When I hear some of our nation’s leaders talk about the Republican era — and many of officials repeat what they say — I get the impression the country was one vast wasteland, without an education or public health system, without highways, aqueducts, sewers, water mains, electricity, telephones, hospitals, schools, factories, businesses, cinemas, theaters or many other things.

Could it be that our towns and cities were a highly developed virtual reality? Does what we see today, now all quite dilapidated, not exist before 1959?

In reality it all existed. Furthermore, it was in even better condition than today and was continually getting better. When you have no important accomplishments to your credit but rather only a series of failures, you must deny the existence of everything that came before, which allows you to pretend you were starting from scratch. Then whatever you have done, good or bad, becomes the sole reality. That is what we have tried to convince the younger generation, who have no firsthand experience of the Republican years.

When we ourselves were young, we were  proud of our country. We respected the national anthem, the flag and the coat of arms. We were aware that not everything was perfect or even worked well, but we tried to improve things and, most importantly, we did not leave Cuba. The only aspiration of today’s younger generations is to emigrate to some other part of the world where they can realize their personal goals. They have lost any hope of being able to solve all the many problems which have accumulated over the years. This is the reality, and not the virtual kind.

I remember a scandal from the Republican era that involved an intoxicated US Navy seaman desecrating the statue of José Martí in Havana’s Central Park. Today, some Cubans use this site and the doorways of the surrounding buildings as a public urinal, mainly at night, in the face of widespread public indifference. Anyone wishing to verify this need only take a stroll through the area in the early hours of the morning. In reality there is much that has been lost, and not just material things.

When historical continuity is severed and whole eras are distorted or swept aside, you get the situation we have in Cuba today. The country is no longer of interest to most of its citizens. Everyone carves out his own little personal corner and adapts it to meet his needs, forgetting about everyone else.

3 November 2014

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