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Cuba’s 14ymedio Journalists Spend Two hours With the New York Times’ Ernesto Londoño

Cuba’s 14ymedio Journalists Spend Two hours With the New York Times’
Ernesto Londoño
Posted: 12/06/2014 4:24 am EST

14ymedio, 1 December 2014 — Ernesto Londoño, who authored six
editorials on Cuba published recently by The New York Times engaged in a
friendly conversation on Saturday with a part of the 14ymedio team, in
the hotel where he is staying in Havana.
Our intention was to interview him, but he told us the norms of his
media prohibit his giving interviews without previous consultation. He
also declined our proposal to take photos. Instead, he was eager to
listen to our opinions in an atmosphere of mutual respect. There were
two hours of conversation dedicated to refining, enriching and debating
the controversial ideas that the newspaper has addresses in his editorials.

The following is a brief synthesis of what was said there, arranged by
topics and ascribed to the author of each opinion.

Journalism

Yoani Sánchez: Cubans are going to need a great deal of information to
avoid falling into the hands of another authoritarianism. In 14ymedio we
are including a plurality of voices, for example on the the issue of the
embargo. We leave it to the reader to form his own opinion from a
variety of information.

Reinaldo Escobar: The official Cuban press, which is all the press,
there are no public media, they are private property of the Communist
Party. Now, has there been a change? Yes, there has been a change. Since
a few years ago the newspaper Granma has had a weekly section with
letters by readers where you find criticism of bureaucrats, things that
don’t work or prices at the markets. But look, the emphasis is on the
self-employed markets.

So far I have not read a profound criticism of the prices at the
convertible peso markets that the Government has, which are abusive. Nor
can you talk about the legitimacy of our rulers or the impracticality of
the system. Here are two big taboos, and in the third place, the topic
of political repression. If they report on a repudiation rally, they
show it as something spontaneous on the part of the people, without
telling how the political police were behind it, organizing it all.

Miriam Celaya: There are changes indeed. The problem is that there are
real and nominal changes, and these changes are generally nominal. Now
everyone in Cuba can legally stay in a hotel, which before was
forbidden. They never explained why it was forbidden before. But Cubans
cannot really afford the luxury of a hotel stay, with wages being what
they are; nor can they buy a car, a house, or travel. The problem with
the reforms is that they are unrealistic for the vast majority of
Cubans. They are a government investment in order to buy time.

There are two of those reforms that are particularly harmful and
discriminatory for Cubans. One is the foreign investment law, which is
explicitly for foreign investors and it does not allow Cubans to invest;
and the other is a new Labor Code which does not acknowledge autonomy,
the right to strike, and which spells out explicitly that Cuban workers
cannot freely enter into contracts with potential companies investing in
Cuba, which constitutes a restraint and a brake.

Víctor Ariel González: Yes, things are changing, but we ask ourselves if
really those changes offer a brighter horizon and why people keep
leaving, even more are going than before.

More apathetic youth?

Miriam Celaya: It is a backlash against ideological saturation, a
submissiveness which conditioned almost every act of your life to
obedience, to political subordination, whether picking a university
career, a job or an appliance, anything. Everything was a slogan,
everything a roadblock. This has subsided somewhat, but previously, it
was impossible to take a step without hearing “Motherland or death, we
will triumph” and go, go… The investigations they undertook to see if
you belonged to the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution… the
youth of today have not experienced that bombardment of “the enemy that
harasses us.” I did not bring up my kids in that, on the contrary, I
tried to detoxify them. So this generation, the children of the parents
of disenchantment, grew up devoid of that and are at a more pragmatic
level, even at a marketing one, whose greatest dream is to leave the
country.

Economy

Eliécer Ávila: The law governing the leasing (in usufruct) of lands for
farmers to work them was the basis of a plan for increasing food
production and lowering prices — so that the average salary for a day’s
work might be more than just three plantains.

I come from the banana plantations of El Yarey de Vázquez, in Puerto
Padre, Las Tunas. The nation’s food supply is the most critical element
in our collective anger. In January of last year, a pound of onions cost
8 Cuban pesos (CUPs). Later, between March and April, the price rose to
15. In May it increased to 25 CUPs and now, the onion has disappeared
from low-income neighborhoods. It can only be found in certain districts
such as Miramar, at five convertible pesos (CUCs) for 10 onions — more
expensive than in Paris — while the monthly Cuban salary still averages
under 20 CUCs per month).

I know very few farmers who even own a bicycle. However, any young
person who joins up with the Ministry of State Security is in no time
riding around on a Suzuki motorcycle.

Embargo

Yoani Sánchez: When talking about the end of the embargo, there is talk
of a step that the White House must take, and for me I don’t care for
the idea that what happens in my country depends on what happens in the
White House. It hurts my Cuban pride, to say that the plans for my
future, for my childrens’ future, and for the publication of 14ymedio
depend on what Obama does. I am concentrating on what is going to happen
in the Plaza of the Revolution and what civil society here is going to
do. So for me I don’t want to bet on the end of the embargo as the
solution. I want to see when we will have freedom of expression, freedom
of association and when they will remove the straitjacket from economic
freedom in this country.

Miriam Celaya: The reasons for the establishment of the embargo are
still in effect, which were the nationalizing of American companies in
Cuba without proper compensation. That this policy, in the limelight for
such a long time, has subsequently become a tug of war is another thing.
But those of us with gray hair can remember that in the 70’s and 80’s we
were under the Soviet protectorate. Because we talk a lot about
sovereignty, but Cuba has never been sovereign. Back then, Soviet
subsidies were huge and we hardly talked about the embargo. It was
rarely mentioned, maybe on an anniversary. Fidel Castro used to publicly
mock the embargo in all forums.

Reinaldo Escobar: They promised me that we were going to have a bright
future in spite of the blockade and that was due among other things to
the fact that the nation had recovered their riches, confiscating them
from the Americans. So what was going to bring that future was what
delayed it.

Miriam Celaya: The issue remains a wildcard for the Cuban government,
which, if it has such tantrums about it, it’s because it desperately
needs for it to be lifted, especially with regards to the issue of
foreign investments. I am anti-embargo in principle, but I can see that
ending it unilaterally and unconditionally carries with it greater risks
than the benefits it will supposedly provide.

Victor Ariel Gonzalez: The official justification says that as we are a
blockaded country so we have the Gag Law. Because we are under siege and
“in the besieged square, dissidence is treason.” There are those who
believe that if the embargo is lifted that justification would end. But
you have to say that this system has been very effective in finishing
off the mechanisms for publicly analyzing the embargo, it has killed off
independent institutions. Then, how will people be able to channel
discontent and non-conformity with the continued repression the day
after the lifting of the embargo?

Reinaldo Escobar: They will have another argument for keeping repression
when the embargo is lifted. Write it down, because “this will be the
test” as they say around here: “Now that the Americans have the chance
to enter Cuba with greater freedom, now that they can buy businesses and
the embargo is over, now we do have to take care of the Revolution.”
That will be the argument.

Repression

Yoani Sánchez: In this country people are very afraid. Including not
knowing they’re afraid, because they have lived with it for so long they
don’t know that this is called “fear.” Fear of betrayal, of being
informed on, of not being able to leave the country, of being denied a
promotion to a better job, not being able to board a plane, that a child
won’t be allowed to go to the university, because “the university is for
Revolutionaries.” The fears are so many and so vast that Cubans today
have fear in their DNA.

Eliécer Ávila: We also need to understand how Cubans make their living.
Ninety percent of Cubans do not work where their calling or vocation
would take them, but rather where they can survive and make do. In this
country, to be a Ph.D. in the social sciences is truly to be the idiot
of the family. This is the same guy who can’t throw a quinceañera party
for his daughter, who can’t take his family out to dinner at a
restaurant. The successful person in this society is the manager of a
State-owned cafeteria. This is because he controls the supplies of
chicken, oil, rice, etc. and sells the surplus on the black market —
which is really how he makes his living. The fundamental tactic to
create social immobility in this country is [for the State] to make as
many people as possible feel guilty about something.

Self-employment

Eliécer Ávila: People think that because there is now self-employment in
this country, that there is a way to be more independent of the State —
which is true up to a point. But the question is, how does a
self-employed business person survive? I had to leave my ice cream
business. After having received my degree in information technology, I
was sent to the interior as a sort of punishment for having an incident
with Ricardo Alarcón, who at that time was the President of the National
Assembly.

It was a turning point for me as I tried to become one of the first
self-employed people in my town. I had a 1967 German ice cream maker.
The process requires 11 products — including coagulant, which someone
had to steal from the ice cream factory. Or rather, I should say,
“recover,” because in this country we do not call that kind of thing
“stealing.” The milk had to be taken from the daycare center, or from
the hospital, so that it could be sold to me. The point is, there simply
is no other way.

All of these private businesses that are springing up and flourishing
are sustained by illegality.

Yoani Sánchez: … O en el capital que viene escondido desde el
extranjero, especialmente desde el exilio. Hay restaurantes en La Habana
que podrían estar en New York o en Berlín, pero esos han recibido dinero
foráneo o es “lavado de dinero” de la corrupción y de la propia cúpula.

Yoani Sánchez: … Or in the capital that comes clandestinely from
abroad, especially from the exile. There are restaurants in Havana that
could be in New York or Berlin, but those have received foreign money or
are engaging in “money laundering” from the corruption and from the
highest leadership itself.

Eliécer Ávila: Many of these businesses are created so that government
officials can place their children, grandchildren and friends in them,
people who are no longer interested in the creation of the “New Man” nor
in achieving a communist society. Rather, they want to launder their
money and insert themselves in society like any other person.
I do not know a single communist worker in Cuba who has been able to
launch a business. Those committed Revolutionaries, who gave their all,
are today the people who don’t have onions in their kitchens.

Yoani Sánchez: Self-employment has been presented as one of the major
indicators of the “reforms” or the Raul regime changes. But on the issue
of self-employment many things are not considered: they have no access
to a wholesale market, they can’t import raw material nor directly
export their products. Thus, the annoyance all Cubans have with the
customs restrictions that went into effect in September. The Government
justifies is saying that “every country has this kind of legislation,”
but in those countries there are laws for commercial imports.

Miriam Celaya: They made a special regulation for foreign investors, so
they can import, but not for Cubans.

Yoani Sanchez: Another issue that greatly affects the economy is the
lack of Internet connection. We’re not just talking about freedom of
expression and information or being able to read14ymedio within Cuba,
but that our economy is set back more and more by people not having
access to the Internet.

Luzbely Escobar: It’s not only that: Self-employment is authorized only
for selling or producing, but the professionals cannot join that sector
with their abilities. You cannot be a self-employed lawyer, architect or
journalist.

Miriam Celaya: A large administrative body was created to control the
self-employed and it is full of corrupt individuals, who are always
hovering over these workers to exploit them and relieve them of their
gains. Some tell me that there are fixed fees for inspector bribes.
Here, even corruption is institutionalized and rated.

Eliécer Ávila: In this country, for everyone who wants to lift his head
towards progress, there are ten who want to behead him. There is much
talk of “eliminating the middleman.” However, the great middleman is the
State itself, which, for example, buys a pound of black beans from the
farmer for 1.80 CUPs, then turns around and sells that pound for 12 CUPs
at a minimum.

The New York Times Editorials

Eliécer Ávila: It would be a great favor to Cuba if, with the same
influence that these editorials are intended to have on the global
debate about one topic [the embargo], they also tried to shed light on
other topics that are taboo here, but that go right to the heart of what
we need as a nation.

Miriam Celaya: I have an idea. Rather than making gestures about the
release of Alan Gross, rather than making gestures about making the
embargo more flexible, I think that the strongest and clearest gesture
that the Cuban government could make would be to liberate public
opinion, liberate the circulation of ideas. Citizens should manifest
themselves; this is something that is not happening here.

Reinaldo Escobar: Without freedom there is no citizen participation.

Miriam Celaya: What is going on with these editorials? They are still
giving prominence to a distorted, biased view, composed of half-truths
and lies about what the Cuban reality is. They are still giving
prominence to what a government says, and Cuba is not a government.
Cuba’s government today is a small group of old men, and when I say
“old” it’s because of their way of thinking, of individuals who have
remained anchored in discourse rooted in a cold war and belligerence.
The Cuban people are not represented in that government.

Yoani Sánchez: I read editorials when they came out but last night went
back to read them more calmly. The first editorial is perhaps the most
fortunate, because it achieves a balance between one side and the other,
but there are some that I think are really pitiful. Such as the one
about the “brain drain” because these medical professionals are living a
drama in this country that is not recognized in these texts.

First, I am against the concept of the theft of, or brain drain, because
it accepts that your brain belongs to someone, to the nation, to the
educational structure, or to whoever taught you. I think everyone should
decide what to do with his or her own brain.

That editorial gives no space to the economic tragedy experienced by
these professionals in Cuba. I know surgeons who may be among the best
in their specialty in Latin America and they can’t cross their legs
because people would be able to see the holes in their shoes, or they
have to operate without breakfast because they can’t afford breakfast.

Miriam Celaya: There is something in that editorial that cuts and
offends me, and it’s that slight of condescension, for instance, in this
quote: “Havana could pay its workers more generously abroad if the
medical brigades continue to represent an important source of income”…
But, gentlemen! To do so is to accept the slavery of those doctors. It
is to legitimize the implied right of a government to use its medical
personnel as slaves for hire. How can that be?

Yoani Sánchez: With regards to these medical missions, I must say that
the human character, no one can question it, when it comes to saving
lives. But there has to be a political side and that is that these
people are used as a kind of medical diplomacy, to gain followers, and
because of this many countries vote at the United Nations on behalf of
the Government of Cuba, which has practically hijacked many countries
because they have Cuban doctors in their territories. It becomes an
element of political patronage.

Another aspect is the economic, which is pushing doctors to leave
because they can see the appeal of having a better salary, they can
import appliances, pots for their home, a computer. Also, every month
their bank account gets a deposit of convertible pesos, which they only
get to keep if they return to Cuba and don’t desert from the mission.
From an labor and ethical point of view it is very questionable.

Another issue is the negative impact it has on the Cuban healthcare system.

Luzbely Escobar: You go to a clinic and it is closed, or of the three
doctors on duty, only one is there because the other two are in
Venezuela, and then there is total chaos.

Miriam Celaya: In these editorials, I have read “Cuba” instead of “the
Cuban government,” and I have read that the members of “the dissidence”
were considered “charlatans.” These definitions, in addition to being
disrespectful, put everyone in the same bag. Here, as everywhere else,
society is complex, and, while it’s true that there are charlatans among
the opposition – and among the government too — there are a lot of
honest people who are working very faithfully for a better Cuba, with
the greatest sacrifice and risk.

When they demonize it, then it seems that they are speaking the
government’s language, as if they had written this in a room of the
Party Central Committee and not in a newsroom of a country in the free
world. Such epithets, coming from prestigious media, end up creating
opinion. That’s a big responsibility.

Dissidence

Yoani Sánchez: In this country the nation has been confused with the
government, the homeland with a party, and the country with a man. Then
this man, this party and this government have taken the right to decide
on behalf of everyone, whether it’s about growing a tomato or a cachucha
pepper, or what ideological line the whole nation is going to follow.

As a consequence, those of us who have ideas different from those of
that party, that government, and that man in power, are declared to be
“stateless” or “anti-Cuban” and charged with wanting to align ourselves
with a foreign power. It is as if now, that the Democratic party is
governing the United States, all Republicans were declared to be
anti-American. This is, like all the countries in the world, plural. If
you walk down the street you are going to meet every kind of person:
anarchist, liberal, social democrat, Christian democrat and even
annexationist. Why can’t this so plural discourse be expressed in a
legal way? And why do people like is have to be excluded from speaking
and offering opinions.

Translated by Alicia Barraqué Ellison, MLK, MJ Porter and Norma Whiting

Source: Cuba’s 14ymedio Journalists Spend Two hours With the New York
Times’ Ernesto Londoño | Yoani Sanchez –
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/yoani-sanchez/cubas-14ymedio-journalist_b_6279912.html

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