Cuba: A Report from a Country where Silence is Feared (Part I)

“In this country we fear silence,” says Dagoberto Valdés as a way of explaining why he stopped talking just after the loudspeakers went silent. Instead of music, the restaurant in an old part of Havana suddenly fills with the voices of customers and the clattering of their silverware. Dagoberto only waits until the waitress takes away the empty cups to lean closer across the table and say: “Reforms? How absurd! In his program Raúl Castro says that now we can buy cell phones and DVD players. Next year it will be air-conditioners and toasters in another two years. That means that eventually, in 2010, my daughter will be able to have toast and marmalade for breakfast. But then what can you expect from a country where a spectacular building such as the Capitol where the Parliament and the Senate held their meetings until 1959, has been turned into the Museum of Science and Technology? This is a perfect metaphor for what has become of Cuba.”

Dagoberto Valdés comes from Pinar del Río, a town in the western part of Cuba. For several years, he was the editor of a magazine called Vitral, which focused on theological, cultural, political a philosophical topics and which belonged among the most daring of the non-censored press. However, in 2003 Vitral’s editors proclaimed their support for the Varela Project, a sort of Cuban Charter 77, many of whose signatories were sentenced up to 28 years in prison. Slowly Vitral began to lose the support that the bishop of Pinar del Río had been giving to it and eventually Dagoberto Valdés together with most of the editorial staff leftVitral and established a new magazine called Convivencia (Coexistence).

Only a small number of the magazine issues have since come out as they lack sufficient funds to purchase paper. However, they have already succeeded in making the following issues of Convivencia widely accessible online (www.convivenciacuba.com). This is also the reason why Dagoberto is in Havana today. In his hometown, he is followed by the police, who prevent him from gaining access to the Internet. Consequently, almost every two weeks he travels two hundred kilometers to the capital city to be able to send all the articles from the Dutch and Norwegian embassies. The web site is registered and maintained by an acquaintance of Dagoberto that lives in Spain, which prevents the Cuban government from blocking it. The web site attracts about 200 000 visits in a month. However, since this data is only an approximation, Dagoberto judges how successful the magazine is based on mainly the level of attendance of the discussion forums. “Every fortnight we download all contributions and questions, there are about a hundred of them, and we answer all of them. Whoever wants to express their views, though, must state their names so that the viewpoints are transparent.”

And what is the magazine like? While Vitral has turned into a superficial theological magazine, Convivencia has shifted its focus more towards political, economic and civil society topics, and it is even more open than Vitral used to be when it was performing at its best.

“So far one student, who wrote an article for us, has been suspended from his second year of studying law. And just today the regime banned a singer of a rock band Turbio, who we interviewed, from performing,” Dagoberto is counting out the first victims of the freedom of speech. He himself worked as an agricultural engineer for sixteen years. After becoming the editor in chief of Vitral, though, he was dismissed from his workplace and for the ten subsequent years he drove a tractor transporting sugar cane. At present he is living on support that he receives from non-profit and humanitarian organizations based abroad and he dedicates himself fully to the magazine.

“Something’s changing in Cuba, though. I think that within the next two years we can expect some more crucial changes, although it will not be the fall of the regime yet,” says Dagoberto. Young Cubans no longer believe the lies that the Communist regime tells them, which even Raúl Castro has admitted unwittingly. When he was proclaiming the first changes, he literally said he wanted to do away with some “absurd prohibitions”. But who else introduced them in the first place than the leaders of the absurd Communist regime themselves with Fidel in the lead?”

Before we leave the restaurant, Dagoberto fingers the bottom side of the table and gives me a conspiratorial wink from behind his glasses. “I am just checking to see whether or not we’ve had company at our table.”

The Brother Ideologue and the Brother Practical

It is raining outside. The pioneers are on the way back home from school and in order to avoid the rain, they are nestling against the walls of rundown houses, which recall colonial times. The façade has long fallen off, balconies are supported with wooden poles stretching from the sidewalks all the way to the fifth floors, in some places all of the inner staircases have been torn down and instead of windows there are just wooden shutters. All of Havana looks like a half-broken ghetto and most of the buildings, which house 2.6 million people, are in disastrous conditions. Even the prestigious avenue Malecón, “The Gateway into Havana”, as it is known by Cubans, makes one think of a boulevard that is recovering from an air raid.

It is needless to say that Raúl has followed his brother Fidel like a shadow all his life. Together, as members of The 26thofJuly Movement, they fought in a failed attack at Moncada barracks, after which Raúl spent 22 months in prison. Also, as the story goes, it was him who, during their stay in Mexico, first became friends with Ernesto Che Guevara and who introduced him into Fidel’s group of revolutionaries. Although Raúl has never succeeded in being seen as a heroic figure in the fight against the dictator Batista like the big three of Fidel, Guevara and Camillo Cienfuegos, even though since the coup of 1959, he has been the second secretary of the Communist Party and played a role in all of the barbarities carried out by the regime. While Fidel was predominantly the visionary of the regime, Raúl was very much its practician: it was him who devised the repressive system of informants and a network of streets rats organized into the Commitees for the Defense of the Revolution (Comité de Defensa de la Revolución).

Although he became president on February 28, 2008, for all intents and purposes he has been running Cuba since June 31, 2006. On that day, Fidel’s private secretary Carlos Valenciaga announced on television that the Comandante had to undergo an operation due to intestinal bleeding and that he temporarily transferred his power of the island into the hands of his younger brother. Then, five days before elections, Fidel announced that he no longer wanted to be president and that he would pass the votes given to him to Raúl. Of course not because he is his brother, but “because he is the best and the most suitable one”. In staged elections Raúl Castro then won by one whole percent over his brother Fidel. His political program is obvious: to feed starved Cubans with a bit of consumerism, to slightly open the sphere of private entrepreneurship, but to hold tight onto the reins of power.

Reforms? Only legalization…

In most Czech dailies, but also, for instance, in the Spanish daily El País, Raúl’s proposals were called reforms. If we leave aside changes in agriculture, the majority of Cubans, who we meet, only offer a polite smile about them like Dagoberto Valdés.

“It is a change for sure, but the word reform is out of the question. It is only a legalization of what has long been working in Cuba as the black market that was tolerated by the regime,” says artist and art teacher Carlos Herrera from Holguin in eastern Cuba. “Anybody can see people on the streets walking with cell phones and sometimes even MP3 players. They either got them from their relatives abroad or they bought them from tourists. Like this one – I got it on the street from an Italian,” he shows off his digital camera with pride.

Until 2008 only tourists, foreign residents of the country or Cubans with a special permit issued by Ministry of Culture were allowed to use the telephone network (there were approximately 200 000 registered lines per 11 million inhabitants). However, it has been a common sight to see tourists selling telephones even with SIM cards. All the new owner had to do then was to go and purchase telephone credit every time it was needed.

Even after making cell phones legal, though, a problem remains: who will be able to afford such a device since the Cuban-Italian company ETECSA set the basic plan of 50 cents of convertible peso (the current exchange rate being 1 euro : 1.4 convertible peso) per minute. At the same time the average salary in Cuba is 17 convertible pesos, as a result of which only few percent of the population is able to afford to have a phone. Transferred into minutes – an ordinary Cuban with an average monthly salary can afford to make phone calls in the total duration of 38 minutes. And that is with not accounting for the price of the telephone itself.

The same is true for the Internet – censored Internet access is provided by ETECSA in its offices, the so called Telepunte,and a handful of Internet cafés in Havana. Students can access the Internet at universities where they get several hours per months assigned, while illegally one can also connect online in hotels provided one has some acquaintances there or sets something aside for the staff’s pockets. “I can spend half an hour online and it costs me three convertible pesos,” says Carlos. “Most people who have the Internet access have it at work, but one must be cautious since ETECSA checks the web sites that one visits, or it even blocks them right away.”

The official dailies Granma and Trabajadores continue to be the propaganda mouthpieces of the regime. In theory one can get free information from Radio José Martí, Voice of America or Radio Vatican. However, every bigger town is equipped with a jamming device that at times happens to jam even state stations broadcasting. And then, the quality of state station reporting and their leaning corresponds precisely to the spirit of the propaganda billboards lining all roads in Cuba. “Whoever comes from the country of terrorists is a terrorist,” announces one of them with a portrait of George Bush. Among the classic ones is Fidel’s ubiquitous set of ten values explaining what “the revolution is: hardwork, dignity, equality, solidarity, heroism, patriotism, unity, modesty, justice and … ultimate and total freedom.