Por June Fernandez*
HAVANA TIMES, March 2 – “The most dangerous ideas” are those that aren’t expressed, hence the importance of creating forums for discussion where everyone can express their opinion. We should not sugarcoat the reality of Cuba nor settle for demonizing the rest of the world. ”
So writes Osmany Sanchez, one of the three people behind the La Joven Cuba (Young Cuba) blog which they define as a forum for young university teachers to express their opinion on the reality of Cuba. They invite their readers to engage in “frank debate and a respectful polemic” in “a platform that facilitates the convergence of views (often opposing) in a language tolerant of other opinions.”
Advocating plurality does not mean they are impartial. During the interview they appealed several times for plurality, but they also tend to talk in terms of “us” and “others”, “those on our side” and “those on the other side.”
They are firmly committed to what they call “the Cuban political project” or what “the other side” would call the Castro regime. There is an abundance of Cuban blogs these days on the internet, and in terms of the many ideological classifications into which they can be put, the Young Cuba blog is considered an independent – pro-government blog.
In any case, LJC stands out from other blogs defending the Cuban political system, not only because it fosters debate between people of other political persuasions, but because they also devote space in their postings to criticizing mistakes and appealing for reforms.
We agreed to meet in the Parque de La Libertad in Matanzas. Given the serious, vehement tone of blog, I imagined them as young people with an axe to grind, up tight, pamphleteers. They too had their prejudices, imagining I would be older and ugly which is what they said as soon as they saw me, laughing of course. They projected an affable, fresh and even playful attitude.
“The blog grew out of our dissatisfaction with not being able to express our opinion on the Internet,” says Roberto Peralo. “They either censored our comments or we weren’t given the means to reply to an article.”
The discomfort was provoked by these two tendencies in the press: “Dissidents speculate a lot about Cuba in a hypercritical way and our side there were articles that we didn’t agree with either, considering they painted a rosy picture or were lacking in subtlety,” he says. Robert points out that the origin of his blog was people “outside the party apparatus,” ordinary people who experience “the everyday reality, the needs and sacrifices of the Cuban people” and that they write about what inspires them with no particular agenda.
The formula has worked. On average they get between 1,500 and 3,000 hits a day, and more than 5,000 comments a month (hardly any of their posts get less than 100 comments). And all this with a very precarious internet connection at the university..
The entire campus shares a 256kb connection, they say, “We go early to the university, before eight in the morning, to load the page. We can’t comment [for a lack of time]; it’s a pain. But we enjoy it too, “says Osmany.
They religiously post an entry a day. When they started they were writing 15-page posts, but they slowly learned as they went along as well as listening to the advice of their readers. “There are many things we can’t do because we have to pay, like having our own domain. Many people have offered to pay, but we don’t accept it because it would impose conditions. Not accepting funding from either of the two sides, gives us independence,” stresses Harold Cardenas.
“When looking for information on the Internet you find the two extremes: opponent blogs that have no time for the views of the revolutionaries, and revolutionary blogs that have no time for comment from the opposition. From the beginning we said this is for everyone, that you need to compare opinions, “says Harold. Which is why they only delete the offensive comments.
At first they suffered the inevitable distrust when talking about Cuba: “They said we were from State security, that we were in a locked room with the conditions all set up, but as they got to know us better and we uploaded photos and videos, they saw we were just like them, “says Osmany.
Even friendships started from that. The following week they were going to meet “a detractor” who usually comments on the blog”. “We are opposite sides of issues on the blog but in real life we can sit, talk, have a beer … We have no problem with the discrepancy, only with those who respond to the interests of the people that fund them,” he adds.
Then they told me they went with the reader and his wife to watch a baseball game. Matanzas played against Industriales (Havana). “In an effort to bring the two shores closer [Cuba and Florida] and to prove dialogue is possible, we spent the night joking and talking about the most diverse political and social issues in the country,” they say in their blog. Matanzas won.
NO NEED FOR CONSENSUS
In La Joven Cuba, both its chief promoters and the sporadic commentators write what they want, without reaching prior consensus. “Our positions are not homogeneous, we have differing views on various issues.
For example? I ask.
“Acts of repudiation” he replies automatically. Osmany interrupts: “We agree on the principles but not on how to say things and how to approach them. At first we got annoyed, but then we’d say, “Oh, I hadn’t seen it that way.” And that enriches us. ”
But Harold returns to raise a controversial issue: “For two days I’ve had an idea in my head that I have not discussed with them, about the right of an opponent of the government to have political representation. I concluded that they are entitled to be represented politically, even by a party.
But if they do something improper, they have mechanisms that ultimately constitute an abuse against us. The day that we are no longer conditioned by external pressures, there will have to be guarantees that these rights are respected. Like freedom to travel: we have framed that in a context of things to be postponed till later. But not indefinitely either. ”
Harold is the most critical during the interview of the Cuban system. He has recently started publishing posts about the so-called five greys, in which he looks at the abuses committed by the Cuban government in the past (the repression of homosexuality, censorship of pop and rock …) with the desire to make a contribution so they don’t occur again in the present.
However, he keeps insisting there is a real threat of aggression by the United States and this explains the immobility to a degree. “We also want to achieve reconciliation ” he adds. “There are many Cubans who have emigrated for economic reasons but are at odds with the government and the Cuban political project.”
June Fernandez: Would you say that Cuba respects freedom of expression?
Roberto Peralo: They have tried to exaggerate the lack of freedom of expression. Working with a foreign power to destabilize a government is sanctioned in the United States, France, Italy, and Spain.
Osmany Sanchez: The first is to define what is freedom of expression and how it is manipulated. Those against the system have got the Prisa group behind them to reproduce everything they say without taking account of different realities.
Harold Cardenas: We have had no interference, and that reassures us that there is freedom of expression. I have written several articles saying that I am not in favor of acts of repudiation of any kind.
(I’m glad the debate turns again to acts of repudiation. This time, Robert has to be away, and Osmany and Harold get into discussion and I sit between them like a spectator in a tennis match.
OS: I do not agree with the term “acts of repudiation.” I think the following: the Ladies in White are funded by the Department of State [U.S.], by Santiago Alvarez, a terrorist who set off bombs in Cuba (and it’s not just me saying that, the order was signed over here). They get briefed, are given orders to provoke us. If those who live here, organized or unorganized, go out and demonstrate against them, hell, why is it an act of repudiation if they’re expressing their position?
An act of repudiation is what was done in the eighties, at the time of Mariel, when they threw eggs at them … We are against that, but the term is being extrapolated to other things. In Honduras anyone who speaks out against the government is massacred and nobody says this is an act of repudiation. Why can’t we defend our own streets? I’m not saying they should be beaten (which they aren’t) but I’ll defend my own street.
THE ARGUMENTS OF THE OPPOSITION
JF: It seems that everyone who speaks against the government is in the pay of the United States. Does everyone get corrupted or is there is a certain degree of paranoia?
OS: It is not paranoia. They are the ones who want to sell the idea that we think that everyone who is against the Revolution is in the pay of the United States.
JF: Name me a visible face of the opposition you don’t think has been bought by the United States.
OS: That’s the problem. When they discussed the guidelines across the country during the Party Congress, millions of people participated. People protested against the restrictions when they want to travel. I’ll throw the question back: there is no visible face, because if someone is legitimate and does not respond to these interests, they do not get publicity, what they say is not repeated on Radio Martí or in El País.
JF: But I’m not talking about appearing in El País but in a blog like yours but more critical of the government.
OS: I do not know if there is one; if there is, we’ll respect it.
HC: It is just common sense that Cuban society has people who are not paid and are genuinely against the Cuban political project. Every country has sectors that are not in agreement with the Government or even with the opinion of the majority. The right for such people to exist of such people is undeniable. But these people often enter into the way of thinking that says if you’re against the government, you can earn a few dollars along the way. And when they accept money, they lose their dignity.
JF: What do you mean when you refer to accepting money?
OS: The U.S. government publicly acknowledges it spends millions to overthrow the Cuban government. Besides, there are so-called Miami NGOs who are also providing funding for the same purposes, and that are known to be supported by USAID. So it is difficult to differentiate. A Paya [Oswaldo], the Ladies in White, Vladimir Roca, Yoani [Sanchez] … they’re behind them.
HC: That will change. They’re to going to fabricate more attractive leaders than them. They’re going to focus on young protesters, with piercings with modern hair styles …Here you’ll see the deficiency of the Cuban government, which isn’t up to creating an attractive image.
JF: How is it I can speak well of the Havana Times – a medium manifestly impartial and pluralistic-minded – when people close to the Government say they are wary, that it is directed by an American …
OS: You can’t evaluate the situation of Cuba on the basis of the European experience, because Cuba is atypical. They said: we’re going to liberalize 178 occupations so people can become self-employed. The next day the State Department came out and said it was going to allocate $6 million to fund microcredits. You say “the discrepancy does exist.” Yes, in the case of young people, the neighbor. But when there are other interests behind that …
JF: If you get entrenched in a dogmatic position you are alienating people who were not aligned initially with the official dissent.
OS: Yes, yes, dogmatism has to be rooted out.
HC: Dogmatism is sometimes unconscious. A person can be considered free-thinking and act dogmatically. We have a long tradition of dogmatism, of Soviet influence, Spanish … [He looks at me mischievously and laughs]. We continue to reproduce schematic models, we think our discourse is innovative but it only goes on being more of the same old thing.
OS: But in recent years we have been solving problems. Like [Cubans] entering hotels, having a computer, cell phones, buying houses and cars, private initiative… They have been retaking the space their opponents had captured.
So now they only have two arguments: travel and the dual currency system. They advocate a single currency and say, “We have tremendous support from the people.”
Of course, any person you ask, even within the party, will tell you they prefer to have a single currency.
What is slowing down the reform of immigration policy is the threat.
If somebody steals a million pesos and goes to the United States and says he is being persecuted, they are not going to send him back. People have committed murder, gone on a boat and nothing happened to them. With regard to civil rights and a multiparty system, any person who has his health and education guaranteed, is not preoccupied with such things.
Freedom House (which is not suspected of defending the revolution) lists priorities in its surveys of citizens and show that they have nothing to do with what outsiders say: people talk about a multiparty system, but what the majority want is to improve their economic conditions.
JF: That argument sounds like Spaniards claiming they lived well under Franco because they did not go hungry. Although people prioritize their material needs, there are other things that are important, like being able to create graffiti against Fidel.
OS: But that’s nonsense! Well, it’s a right, I respect the right, but when you try to defend that right above others … There are other third world countries that nobody criticizes for human rights violations. And there are others where you can protest against the president but in the background are children on the street who have no school to go to and are into prostitution.
HC: I agree with the defense of those rights, but I don’t see it as a priority because of the aggressive context of undeclared war in which we have been living so long. One accepts certain limitations as a citizen, for the greater good, which is the Cuban political project, including for example keeping our streets safe. But ultimately the goal is to make progress on these human rights too.
JF: Obstacles are being put up to prevent the LGBT from organizing but a collective is emerging, LGBT Rights Watch, which is clearly an opponent. Given that dissidents are always going to organize, would it not be better just to permit autonomous movements?
HC: Yes, that’s absurd.
OS: In what sense?
JF: Well, with a group of lesbians meeting for whatever: having a place to meet, debating, organizing special days, holding demonstrations …
HC: That’s not a political decision, it’s a social phenomenon. If society agrees, I think it has to happen. What is absurd is letting your opponents do it and your people don’t do it, because then you create the impression that the entire LGBT movement is against you.
OS: They say they spent [from the U.S.] about $350,000 for a gay parade on Prado Ave. But it’s like you say why not just accept a thing once something else happens.
HC: For me it’s quite clear.
JF: Do you agree that it is healthy to have a strong civil society which can organize in its own way. Currently associations are required to be supervised by institutions.
OS: True, but there have been examples of associations that are funded also by international groups. Sometimes it’s a problem of self-censorship and self-limitation.
HC: Yes there are legal limitations. This concept of “civil society” was frowned upon for years because it was linked with dissent. Dissidents in turn hijacked that term, and the State was unable to formulate its own. There were too many reservations. In the minds of many officials, the notion of a civil society existing outside the state apparatus was a subversive idea.
Now, I don’t know whether it is government policy or the decision of certain leaders. I think we have to reclaim the term. Whatever way you look at it, La Joven Cuba is civil society. By responding to the dissent, the government shows a desire for control which is detrimental to people in the street. But I’m breathing winds of change. Because the Cuban political system has to change or perish. And the change experienced in the last four or five years has been dramatic, greater than in the previous twenty years. I am very optimistic, but I also know that we can repeat past mistakes.
INTERNET AND JOURNALISM
JF: The truth is that due to limited access to the internet here, you get read mainly abroad.
HC: It’s good we’re getting so many people from the U.S. There are many Cubans who have emigrated and want to feel a bond. LJC has become a link.
JF: What about the famous fiber optic cable?
HC: I do not know, the people in Havana will know better. We do not like to be guided by what is said on the street, but obviously this is a case of large-scale corruption. We feel very upset and disappointed with the whole issue.
OS: What is unforgivable is that they don’t explain what happened. Social use of the internet is prioritized in Cuba. We imagine our university is, but we know nothing.
HC: When we learned of the corruption, I told my classmates, “Hey, I’m outraged, I think I’ll get a group of outraged people together outside the Ministry of Communications”. But then you don’t do it because you know the dissidents will make use of that.
JF: Fine, but why would you want to stop protesting just because they take you for a dissident?
HC: Yes, that conditions me because I know what will happen. But whenever I have the opportunity to complain, I do: in my neighborhood, in college, in my CDR …
JF: What do you think of this policy of prioritizing access by certain groups? Eventually it works out that anyone who happens to have the money will find a way to connect.
OS: Before, the argument was that they could not spread so many kilobytes among the population when they could’nt even reach the university. It is so easy to understand that anyone campaigning on this issue is doing so because there is some hidden interest. It’s an example of how things get manipulated.
JF: You’ll agree that the Cuban media are lamentable.
OS: They need to be improved. There’s a lot to be done. And there is progress.
HC: Everyone knows the political will to change all that is lacking here.
OS: It’s not always political will.
HC: The decisions of the Cuban information system are not made by the Cuban press, a political body takes them. How much mobility does a body like that have to respond fast to news?
OS: But there are easier ways. There’s a radio program here in which they invited an expert on communal land and opened the phone to people to ask all sorts of questions. That is a good example. Why not extend it?
HC: But look: at the time of the Mazorra [psychiatric hospital] deaths, I didn’t see the Minister of Health facing the press.
OS: But that’s not what it’s about. Who is stopping anyone doing investigative journalism? It’s not a question of political will but of personal initiative.
JF: And then who gets what?
OS: The television. We need to be critical.
HC: I think that journalists are critical. It’s a two sided thing. On the one hand you have self-censorship : they don’t do critical reports because they think they’re not going to be able to publish them. And then there’s the real censorship: lots of officials who don’t in fact allow it [to be published].
OS: We need a press that’s truly critical. Let them spell out the names of the corrupt. But when they come and say to me that there are things wrong with my press, based on patterns of other countries … No, not that.
HC: They believe that by maintaining an archaic scheme of how the press of the Revolution should be, they are saving the revolution. But if they insist on not changing, on not adapting with the times, they’ll be destroying it.
OS: But the press has improved lately.
JF: Well, thank goodness!
OS: Juventud Rebelde daily has a section where people mention things that have happened to them, hard stuff, with names, naming institutions. But more is needed.
JF: What other areas of the Cuban blogosphere do you recomend?
HC: I’m not satisfied, because there are many blogs with extreme positions. That is improving, but I can’t find what I’m looking for. I visited Negra Cubana the blog of Paquito’s, the one of Elaine, the one of Henry Urbieta, of Letters from Cuba, of Fernando Ratsverg Yohandry … And the one by Yohandry which is officialist but has lots of information.
O.C.: There is a misconception. You cannot write a blog just to dispel the negative comments about Cuba. It’s about people who enter learning about reality, other visions of Cuba. On the other hand, these bloggers are getting worn out and empowering the other person, because most people are supportive with the person who is under attack.
NEW REFORMS, OLD INEQUALITIES
JF: Some people have made the criticism that Raul Castro’s reforms will strengthen the division between social classes because they favor those who start from a privileged position.
OS: The same ones who are saying that what is needed is capitalism, now criticize the Revolution because the measures will create social strata.
HC: Up to yesterday having money in Cuba was frowned upon, was taboo. Now suddenly it’s a panacea. We must be careful.
OS: But if you earn it by working?
HC: It is a good thing that work is rewarded.
JF: But historical inequalities are reproduced.
OS: What would be unforgivable is that the son of one of the self-employed gets a different school from my daughter. And the best teachers should be for everyone and the doctors we educate should be for those who have and those who don’t.
J.F. Aren’t you tempted to set up a cafeteria given its more profitable to kneed dough than it is to be a university professor?
HC: It is more profitable.
OS: Yes it’s true. But the big challenge is for all these reforms to give such a boost to the economy it allows our salaries to be in correct proportion again.
HC: In Cuba there are no class differences, but social differences, which is a different thing. My son and the son of a self-employed person with greater purchasing power will go to the same school and to the same hospital, but he’ll have enough to give a gift to the teacher or the doctor and be treated differently from me.
OS: I don’t give gifts. I feel like it would be offending the professional, and anyway there will always be someone able to give a better present.
*Published originally in Spanish by June Fernandez on her blog Mari Kazetari.