Cuba: Miriam Celaya, A Dissident By Nature

Yusimi Rodriguez

Miriam Celaya

HAVANA TIMES, Jan 10 — Most Cubans don’t have Internet access. Many don’t know what the “network of networks” is. For them, Miriam Celaya is just a name.

Even those people who have Internet access at their jobs aren’t familiar with her blog. Access is always blocked.

If they knew she was the author of the blog Sin evasion, anchored on the platform desdecuba.com with a mirror in vocescubanas.com, they would assuredly think she was a cyber-terrorist, a mercenary, pro-imperialist.

Those are the terms people have learned to associate with those who are “dissidents,” “bloggers,” and “freelance journalists.”

I interviewed Miriam to learn about her life, her ideas and how much of a mercenary, cyber-terrorist and pro-imperialist she really is.

This 52-year-old woman is an art history graduate and worked 21 years at the Institute of Anthropology. She has two children and two grandchildren. Between 1975 and 1980, she was a convinced member and activist with the Young Communist League.

HT: What made you change your position?

Miriam: It was a process. My generation grew up with the notion that those who left the country were traitors. We didn’t communicate with family members who left. It wasn’t forbidden, but it was frowned upon, and it could hurt you. In 1979, the government entered into dialogue with the Cuban community abroad and these individuals started coming back on visits. They weren’t traitors but sisters and brothers of our community. To me it was a story that had been poorly told.

They wore jeans, nice shoes, things that appealed to all young people. But in the meetings of the Young Communist League, there began a process of the “deepening of consciousness,” a process in which those who were accused of “ideological deviation” were analyzed.

Wearing designer jeans and shoes, or smoking foreign cigarettes were examples of that “deviation.” I questioned many things and it always got me in trouble.

In 1980, I had a child and had to leave school – I couldn’t find anyone to take care of my baby. Consequently, I was kicked out of the organization as a deserter, as if motherhood was grounds for punishment. I appealed, and during the period of that appeal, I continued participating in my branch and its activities. The first thing they subjected me to was a “repudiation meeting.” I had already seen a few of them. I denied the charges and said that what they were doing was fascistic, so I was expelled from the organization.

I saw that the model didn’t work. I saw that the leaders in which I had believed had cheated and manipulated.

HT: How can we define you now politically?

Miriam: I have renounced all ideological ties. I have a political opinion and I’m interested in politics, but don’t want to devote myself to it. I prefer to express my opinion as a citizen, based on my political right to hold my own position. I was even a member of a social democratic opposition party, and I was delighted with that. It allowed me to assess most of the groups connected with the so-called “traditional opposition.” I won’t support any of them in the future. They’re worn out and do a lot of harm. Sometimes they receive money. I don’t think it’s bad to receive funding, but not from a government. That ranks as interference, no matter what government does it.

HT: This forces me to bring up another question. Do you receive any funding?

Miriam: I don’t receive any government funding, and I refuse to accept it. I get paid for certain publications, for example in the Diario de Cuba and for some editorial work for a book. People might ask me to write about certain things, but I write my own opinions, not what they necessarily want to hear. I stopped publishing with some sites because they would change what I said. It’s unethical and I don’t allow it. Sometimes, foreign journalists will give me things like a flash memory or disks. I’ll accept things like that – but not money.

HT: You started your blog under the pseudonym “Eve.” What made you decide to bring your true identity into the light?

Miriam: I created that pseudonym when working with the online magazine Encuentro. I was still working at the Institute of Anthropology. On March 25, 2005, a new law was issued under which people could publicly express their ideas, even political differences. They could put them in writing – unless this involved a teacher, a researcher or journalist. This meant that anyone could write, except those who had the most ideas. This was when I decided to get out of anthropology; I also had a lot of differences with the administration.

I kept the pseudonym because of family pressure. My husband was afraid that my writing could harm our son, who was studying at Lenin High School, one of the best in the country. He was also concerned that these writings could create problems for himself, since he is a merchant seaman. He had worked under contract for years with foreign shipping concerns, so he was worried the authorities might have denied him permission to leave out on jobs. My family is my priority and I didn’t want to create problems for them. We agreed to wait for our son to finish high school. In July 2008, I started signing my name.

HT: What implications did that have for you?

Miriam:I was very well received by the readers, and I felt better because it was more authentic, more believable.

HT: Have you experienced any form of hostility?

Miriam: Not in my community. Some friends and acquaintances have distanced themselves from me or have tried to avoid me. My husband was called on the carpet at what was supposed to be a meeting at his job in 2009. When he showed up for the meeting, he found the political police and someone from the State Security there. They threatened him concerning his job and even made warnings related to our son. He didn’t let them intimidate him, and they never bothered us again.

On occasions, I’ll notice a little surveillance, but I’m not concerned. I’ve been told that our phone is tapped, but it would be foolish to waste time watching me. I only write what I think, you only have to go to my blog.

Long before she started her blog, Miriam had quit her neighborhood Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) and stopped voting in “elections” (since no one is actually elected).

I DON’T TAKE ORDERS FROM ANY EMBASSY

HT: How do you carry out your work? No Cuban has Internet legally, except from their jobs, but you don’t have a government job.

Miriam: Yoani Sanchez, Reinaldo Escobar, Dimas Castellanos, others and I created a magazine called “Consenso.” Later the name was changed to “Con todos.” Yoani started her blog on that webpage. We were all excited and each of us started our own blog.

We would get online using Internet cards that cost 5 CUCs an hour (about $6 USD). We had foreign journalist friends who would give them to us as gifts. So this was how we were able to update our blogs.

When Yoani won the Ortega and Gacet award, the government started filtering our writings so that people couldn’t access the blogs. Now people can view them through hotel cyber facilities and embassies. The option we chose was to get online through embassies. I did it from the Dutch embassy. I went and explained my need. It’s perfectly legal. I’ve also got online through the Swedish embassy and lately from the Czech Republic.

I don’t subordinate myself to the interests of any embassy. They don’t determine anything. The ideas about us are manipulated on television, without giving us the right to reply. We’ve been described as “cyber terrorists.”

Since they have the Mesa Redonda (Round Table)  political talk show, why don’t they let us participate on it? They would be the best way to respond and discuss issues, but in a real debate, not what they do, which is simply patting each other on the back.

HT: Now that you’ve raised the issue, I saw the first season of Razones Ciudadanas(*), and although I identify with its positions, I feel that it’s pretty much like the Mesa Redonda. The participants all hold more or less the same opinions; there’s little variation.

Miriam: You’re right, and the participants perceive this. We would like for people such as Ubieta and Taladrid to be on there, but they won’t. Others who we’ve invited, like Elaine Diaz, have declined because they say we’re “mercenaries”…that same old line.

We want to establish ties and debate. I enter Elaine Diaz’s blog and leave my comments. I put very respectful comments on other websites but they have blocked them.

HT: You seem very conciliatory, but you were quite harsh toward the Critical Observatory nearly two years ago. They wrote a letter denouncing acts such as the expulsion of Omni Zona Franca from the premises they occupied and they spoke out against violence used against Yoani Sanchez in late 2009. However, you didn’t consider it “radical” enough and wrote a critique that said “The Critical Observatory wants to swim without getting their butt wet.”

Miriam: I don’t remember, but it’s true that I have this problem and many friends have told me so. Not everyone has to say things the same way. I’m at a point that not everyone has reached or has to reach. Some people have jobs they have to look out for. I understand that, but sometimes I forget.

I’ve read some very interesting things from the Critical Observatory and I want to do them justice.

When Ted Henkin wrote his Cartografía de Blogolandia (A Mapping of the Cuban Blog World), he questioned to what extent these embassies make you say certain things or whether they would allow us to speak out against the blockade or the freedom of the Cuban Five. I wrote him that I’ve always spoken out against the blockade and annexation. Concerning the five spies, that he called heroes, I don’t write about them because there’s an entire ministry dedicated to that.

HT: What do you personally think about the case of the Cuban Five?

Miriam: Like Jimmy Carter, I think that regardless of them being guilty or innocent, they’ve served enough time. In addition, a lot is being spent on the campaign for their release when it should be spent on health care and education, which are disastrous.

Ted posted my comment and later I saw it in the bulletin of the Observatory. I thanked him a lot for that; it helps to break the image of alternative bloggers as mercenaries advocating annexation. I’m as Cuban as anyone. Who said that socialism is Cubania? I was surprised because I had another image of the Observatory. “

I’M NOT LEAVING CUBA

HT: In the second episode of Razones…, you and other participants expressed skepticism about the possibility of authorizing the purchase of houses and cars. Today these measures are a reality; the government is also extending loans and taxes have been reduced on self-employed workers. What do you think of these measures and where do you think they’re taking us?

Miriam: I would have to have a crystal ball, but I will try to give my perception. These are the same policies applied by the same politicians, once again manipulating things in their interests. For me, one government has experimented on us for over 53 years and the only thing they’ve been able to demonstrate is failure. They don’t deserve a second chance, not even a ten-thousandth of a chance.

Secondly, I see people very excitedly saying, “Now they’re going to stop doing this or that,” but this I find discouraging. It tells me how far removed the public is from reality. No one has to allow me to sell what’s mine. It’s a natural right of citizens. None of these politicians has apologized for their errors and violations.

It’s a first step that they have glossed over. I can’t believe in the political will of these rulers. What they’re doing now is trying to buy time. People selling their homes seems very positive; what’s negative is that it’s taken 53 years.

I sometimes think that the Communist Party has gone over to the opposition, with all their plotting and doing everything in secret. The Party Congress was announced in an event, suddenly, and the first person to obtain a copy of the “Guidelines” booklet was Hugo Chavez. Meanwhile the rank-and-file membership didn’t even know there was a congress, the highest level meeting of their party.

They had no participation in the calling of the congress or in the development of the Guidelines. Later they made a big deal about “popular consultation.” For me, all of it was a part of a representation of democracy. I’m not saying pure democracy exists, but this is a farce. Can anyone at this stage believe that an entire nation thinks the same?

Something that shows the lack of legitimacy of this government are the thousands of Cubans who continue to leave. But I say in capital letters that I’M NOT LEAVING CUBA. It’s one of the most annoying things to them, I’m sure.

I think now it’s the time for citizens. A civic culture is needed in Cuba, true citizens, who don’t exist. My friends wonder why I go around looking for problems when I have an apartment, a car and I don’t go hungry. I find it offensive; the worst thing is that they say those things to protect me.

You can then multiply this by the millions of people who can be found evading the solutions. This is why my blog is called Sin evasion (Without evasion). Many people leave the island, while others live on remittances, but both are forms of evading. I’d be ashamed to live off relatives who left.

HT: Shouldn’t the government be ashamed?

Miriam: It’s the government that now tells you what you can do. People collect their remittance money to open businesses and pay money to that government. I don’t see it improving health care or education. Food prices continue to skyrocket. The economy is upside down. I’m criticized for giving my opinion about the economy, but I think at the level of the pocket.

When I buy something, I wonder how the elderly, retirees, are managing to survive. One day I’ll be one of them. I don’t have any faith in this government or in these reforms. I can also see it in the street, the social barometer tells you. People’s faith is exhausted.

HT: In that same episode of Razones… you said the debate about the future of the country must extend to the Cuban diaspora. Does this include those on the far right, those who have supported terrorist actions against Cuba and have called for armed invasion by the US government?

Miriam: Even them. I can’t reject exclusion and then propose it. I think they should be involved, but I have faith that they would lose to the overwhelming majority of people who are against those ideas. A large core of the diaspora rejects those policies that have maintained the hostility, which have only given ammunition to this government to remain entrenched.

In addition, Cubans of the diaspora are good at sending money to their families, who spend it in these stores that quadruple the prices. Shouldn’t they also participate in solutions and internal policies, don’t you think?

I’m confident that most of us Cubans are anti-annexationist and anti-blockade.

I HAD A VERY ROMANTIC IDEA OF LITERACY

HT: You were saying that public health care and education are disastrous, but many would respond that our health care and education are free. Though I don’t think they are, it’s undeniable that we all have access to them. In fact, the support for the government by many people is based on these two aspects.

Miriam: So, they could have supported Spain, here there was free education since the colony, though it wasn’t generalized. There was free health care and education during the Republic. My parents studied in public schools. In terms of health, medical treatment was free.

But there was also private healthcare. I was born in a private clinic, though I was the daughter of a skilled worker and a homemaker, and the granddaughter of small merchants. My brother’s throat was operated on at a private clinic at no additional cost. The revolution didn’t establish free health care – it eliminated private care.

I don’t think it’s free now if you consider the 80 percent they take from my husband’s contracts, the taxation on remittances and the starvation wages. Added to that, if you’re admitted into a hospital you have to have your own breakfast, lunch and dinner brought to you, as well as a bucket for bathing…

Often there are no painkillers or the needed medicines, but they do have them at the Cira Garcia clinic and the pharmacies that serve foreigners. So what are we talking about? Now there’s private health care but I don’t have access to it.

When people tell me I’m a college graduate thanks to the revolution, I say we’ll never know, maybe, perhaps I could have won a scholarship by taking an entrance exam.

HT: But in 1959, there was a high percentage of illiteracy.

Miriam: It was one of the lowest in Latin America. I’m glad that you’re touching on that point, because I had a romantic idea about the 1960s literacy campaign. Most of those who were illiterate were concentrated in rural areas. Wouldn’t it have been more rational to create rural schools in certain areas and to send teachers to those specific sites?

But no. We had to create an army of literacy volunteers and mobilize who knows how many people. Fidel Castro, with his messiah syndrome, has always needed big shows. What need was there to take on those kinds of costs, to paralyze school courses and snatch schoolchildren out of their classrooms and workers from their jobs? People had to be taught to read and write, and it succeeded, but it could have been done for less cost.

You talked about the extreme right and the terrorist attacks that have killed Cubans. But who died in Angola, Ethiopia and Bolivia? Those were not our wars. I know people who returned from Angola mutilated. Is that pretty? No war is good. Not a capitalist one or a socialist one, nor those waged on behalf of alleged great ideas.

And that mass poll on socialism being eternal (in 2002)? …with people indicating their preference in an open book of the defense committee? If he really wanted a plebiscite, it should have been done with a secret ballot.

Miriam was one of the few who didn’t sign the document that proclaimed socialism irreversible.

Miriam: I’m a dissident by nature. I will always have things to question, in this system or another one that may come.

—–
(*)
Razones ciudadanas: Audiovisual material divided into episodes in which appear Cuban citizens with “alternative” views. They can be bloggers, independent journalists, specialists in some branch, but they all discuss core issues for current and future of Cuba that are not addressed in the national media. Razones ciudadanas circulates among Cuban citizens through CDs and flash drives.

 



4 thoughts on “Cuba: Miriam Celaya, A Dissident By Nature

  • A most informative interview. Thanks for doing it Yusimi.

    Reply
  • In the year of 2012 they are out there people without internet? I m not feeling ok if I don t have internet connection it will be like the end of the world.

    Reply
  • it’s interesting that foreign journalists give Miriam gifts. In the same foreign countries that they come from journalists specialise in making up lies about working class people and supporting the system so that the multi-billionaires (you have no idea what corruption is) can carry-on stealing.

    Reply
  • Yusimi,

    This is an instructive interview. Your questions were very kind and you did little followup on her various assertions such as that health care in Cuba was essentially free before 1959 and the literacy campaign was unnecessary. These were her explanations for why she doesn’t agree with those who see positive things about the revolution and socialism. So now the reader can better understand her political psychology.

    In the US, we have major political figures who argue along the same line, both about Cuba and even embarrassingly about the same subjects in the US. One running for president recently suggested health care was available to all via emergency rooms and another asserted that if someone didn’t have insurance or money, it was up to their family or church to save them – not some “socialist” ideal like health-care-for-all.

    Only a deep seated bias can account for such distorted and callous beliefs, whatever the nationality.

    Reply

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