Thursday, July 30, 2015

Cuba: U.S. left acquiesces with repression, believes in neo-Con’s economics

By Isabel Manuela Estrada Portales, Ph.D., M.S.

I am of the school of Zapata. Yeah, Emiliano: I do not want freedom without bread; nor bread without freedom. I want liberty and bread.
The United States and Cuba reopened their embassies and the American left is drooling because they assume there is some paradise we have missed.
The Ladies in White (las #DamasdeBlanco),
relatives of Cuban political prisoners.
From The Cuban Economy
As things are supposedly changing in Cuba, many of us are upset at the plethora of benefits showered on the Castro’s regime without any substantive concession from it in return. However, I wonder why we ask the United States and Obama to do our work for us, again.
While the blame for the situation in the island falls squarely on the regime that has strangled it for more than five decades, there is plenty of culpability to go around. I do believe that we, Cubans, particularly those of us living abroad, have significant responsibility. We talk a good game but do nothing and never miss an opportunity to go back and take pictures on the sunny beaches and the trendy cafés. Not to mention those of us who are greasing palms, bloody as they might be, to get a slice of the pie while is hot…and cheap. The only drawbacks are those pesky protesters.
However, why would or should the U.S. keep up a fight that we, Cubans are only too happy to forgo?
Hugo Cancio, the Cuban-American businessman, owner of the online magazine OnCuba, and a Marielito no less, is milking the convenient situation of Cuba for all its worth. He admits that most of the money flowing to the island is coming from Miami. “For the [Cuban] government, Cancio was an appealing figure: a Cuban-American capitalist who was also a patriot, and not averse to working within the Party’s limitations—especially if his business got a boost.” As a story in The New Yorker would have it: “Cubans like Cancio have deduced that expressions of resentment will get them nowhere.”
The left, though, somehow has discovered the wonders of the cruelest capitalism in the new Cuba.
It is disheartening to watch how those who criticize the worst aspects of an individualistic system that devalues the communal efforts and penalizes the poor for being so can’t find enough excitement to show about the transformation of Cuba from a dictatorial socialist country to a dictatorial free market one.
The positive reaction from the left and the business segments of the right to this process of “rapprochement” and Obama’s position have shown us that José Martí was right but not quite about “the brutal and turbulent North which despises us.” It reminds me of Casablanca, when Ugarte says to Rick “You despise me, don’t you?” to which Rick replies: “If I gave you any thought I probably would.”
Americans don’t despise Cubans, particularly the money-less ones; they just don’t give them any thought. They imagine the forbidden fruit, the movie images of hot Havana nights, the sex craze. Those who would fall in line with ideology in the face of evidence every time perhaps really harbor illusions of a place that has stood up to an imperial power. They hang to that mirage for dear life and ignore the stream of evidence to the contrary.
Why are celebrities and billionaires going to Cuba? Are they trying to showcase the medical advancements or trying to show off in the old cars of the Cuba of yore that are, ironically, the harbingers of things to come?
Yes, Americans wonder what the point is of a pointless embargo. I am against the embargo precisely because it is just one more of the U.S. foreign policy hypocrisies: China, fine. Cuba, communist. Obama’s actions are an admission of defeat for a policy that has not brought about the intended change. That, actually, may speak to America’s greatness.
When I’m obstinate, I wonder what the point is of re-establishing diplomatic relationships with a brutal and anti-democratic regime. The point is clear: either a blind faith in the free market’s ability to bring about democratic change or an utter disregard for the fate of most Cubans. I believe both are true of America’s position everywhere.
The government I can deal with. What I can’t tolerate, stomach is more apt, is the position of my fellow travelers on the left side of the boat. If the only way we can have an equitable society is through repression, I don’t want it and I don’t think many would. We all know it is a fallacy.
We raise our voice against the abuse of women in India; the genital mutilation in countries of Africa; the femicide in Honduras, but have nothing to say about women beaten in the streets of Havana for staging peaceful protests.
We fight against mass-incarceration in the U.S. and its genocidal toll on the black population, but keep complicit silence about the deteriorating condition of blacks in Cuba; their increasing separation from the sources of hard currency and their overrepresentation in the poorest neighborhoods and the prisons.
Diplomatic relationships are necessary. The U.S. should not solve this. We, Cubans should. But the U.S. should at least stand up in principle and condemn this regime slightly more sternly. 
On the Kojo Nnamdi Show of July 20, Enrique Pumar, Chair of the department of Sociology of the Catholic University of America said that both governments should make an effort to move things along, because, “it is not helpful” that, in the middle of the negotiations there were human rights abuses in Cuba. “This is not helpful. In any democracy elected officials are accountable, and when people see that in the news they become disillusioned.”
I would love to know to what democracy and to what elected officials he was referring. Just imagine the outcry if someone said that it is not helpful that ISIS kept killing people; that Iran kept flogging bloggers; or that Saddam Hussein kept jailing and torturing the opposition. Particularly for those at the wrong end of the beatings it is certainly most unhelpful.

Oh, but it is not the same, of course, because Cuba has free healthcare and free post-secondary education.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

The neo-liberal media coverage of Cuba’s opening

By Isabel Manuela Estrada Portales, Ph.D., M.S.

When covering Cuba, context matters. I guess that can be said of any reporting, but context is usually the first casualty in sexy stories. And the “rapprochement” between the United States and Cuba is nothing if not sexy.
On July 4, the BBC reported on the 35 new Wi-Fi hotspots in the island and, despite the minor issues of very low speed, it was a success story: there is internet connection in certain areas for people with handheld devices; it the costs “only” 2 CUC per hour; and that is less than half of what it used to be: 4.50 CUC per hour. CUC is the convertible currency, valued higher than the dollar, according to Castroeconomics. The average Cuban monthly salary is, approximately, 23 CUC. Progress that they call it.

The bloggers of Voces Cubanas. 
Many Cubans are unable to access their own blogs. 
Credit: New York Review of Books.
The triumphant BBC correspondent even managed to connect, opened the BBC homepage and read today’s headlines. The civilized world is rolling in on the sunbathed Caribbean paradise. I was expecting the journalist to, then, attempt to open Yoani Sánchez’s blog or any of the sites the Cuban government blocks, just to show how the times of political suppression of information are now long gone. Right? But, nope. I guess it was not the story he wanted to tell. And, truly, it is not the one I care to discuss here either.
My point of contention with this and most of the coverage of Cuba’s newly found spot on the free market economy and the celebrity pages of magazines the world over takes for granted the lack of political freedom and the violent suppression and repression of all individual liberties – except the liberty to spend your money enriching the regime that oppresses you. My contention, then, is that the coverage of Cuba’s supposed opening is essentially neo-liberal. It is as neo-liberal as the U.S. president who is putting his hopes in the free market to change the anti-democratic essence of Cuba; the same way the free market has not changed the structural conditions that maintain a non-always metaphorical noose around the neck of impoverished black majorities…and a very great deal of whites in the U.S.
Obama, in his quest for legacy-making achievements at any cost, looks at Cuba and assumes good old neo-liberal capitalism would take care of the 54 year old regime, democracy be dammed! He has examples of that, say, in China and Russia, those two current beacons of freedom and democracy, where the communist oppressors became the rich tycoons – albeit the many differences between those nations and systems – but I digress. I'm all for changing a worthless foreign policy that has kept the status quo for 50 plus years. I just think there are principles we purport to respect, except when they inconvenience us too much. 
To illustrate the neo-liberal bent of the coverage and the politics, let’s focus on the access to the internet. Has anyone ever heard of the digital divide? Where are the usual questions reporters are taught to ask? Questions such as: How many Cubans have internet-capable handheld devices? How much does one such device cost in the island? Where can they buy them? How many Cubans can pay 2 CUC per hour for internet and how often? And if one wants to be incisive, how many black Cubans have access to this? For what would they use the internet? How much does this represent of their average monthly income? And other such boring queries.
But, neo-liberals don’t care about that because the free market takes care of everything and if you can’t afford it, well, it sucks to be you. I can already hear the voices saying: “that’s the case everywhere. If you don’t have the money you can’t have the stuff, and that’s that.”
And here is where context matters. Those market driven answers – cruel as they might be anywhere – are utterly unacceptable in reference to Cuba because that regime took everything from some in order to, supposedly, distribute it more equitably. Over the years, each time some managed to accumulate a little bit of how ever meager wealth without being in the inner circles or receiving their blessings, they were stripped of everything and even thrown in jail. I, sadly, know personally more than one who was in this predicament. Resort to the laws? What laws?
Access to the internet is, perhaps, a perfect example of the “free” part of the market economy in Cuba. Back in March, Etecsa, the island telecom monopoly, granted approval to the artist Kcho to open the country's first public wireless hub at his cultural center. Needless to say, Kcho has close ties to the Cuban government and “is operating the hub using his own, government-approved internet connection, and paying approximately $900 per month to run it.”
It is a painful irony that those who repressed and stole over the years – and their progeny – are vacationing abroad, posing with foreign celebrities and lining their pockets quite handsomely. So, at the end and as promised by the 1959 revolution – or accident – we are all equal…but some are significantly more equal than others.
And the poor? Well, they are there. The same place they were before. They are waiting for the trickle down economy to sprinkle something on them. Again, no news there were it not for the fact that we are talking about Cuba. People who suffered expropriations because we needed to share better now have to hear that the restaurant La Guarida charges $25 per plate. Yeah, they probably also sell strawberry and chocolate ice cream. The rest of us have to hear there is no single black waiter/waitress in the “cool” restaurants and cafés of the new Cuba. All that was old is new again, and we have a new white and rich elite that buys its status with its silence, its complicity with the oppression and its disregard for the rest.
I wonder how many Wi Fi hotspots will be located in Los Pocitos, Jesús María, Guanabacoa, and rural areas of Pinar del Río or Baracoa. I wonder what would be done to help usher into the new, digital economy, for instance, black Cubans whose economic status keeps deteriorating and are the ones without family abroad to support them.
To me this is very personal. I was a poor, black, unconnected Cuban, and that became very apparent to me when compared to my whiter and richer – and also beloved and most decent – University classmates. However, despite everything else, I didn't lack most of the things that would grant me an even playing field. In another ironically cruel twist, it was a much more egalitarian society, but it was criticized a lot more. I wonder how girls like me would fare now. How I, myself, would fare had I stayed in Cuba, since my job prospects were bleak, given my stubborn lack of acquiescence with the politics of Cuba’s illustrious leadership? I wonder how the people in my Habana Vieja hood are faring? I’m sure neoliberal reporters would cover that next.  
I can’t shake the images of the Arab Spring, where people under brutal dictatorships – some of which we had happily supported when they served us, but, again, I digress – were covering the rebellion by Twitter. I’m sure the Castros can’t shake it either.
To me this sounds the same as when they removed the exit permit. No need to worry, because hardly anyone gives visas to Cubans, so, besides being a cash cow, the exit permit was just making patent to the world the dictatorial ways of the beautiful island. Before, the internet was restricted to an elite, privileged – and government sanctioned – few. Now, the internet is restricted to an elite, privileged – and government sanctioned – few with money.