Life In Cuba Today – The Reality, contains information from the discussion with Cuban dissident Yoani Sánchez, on June 12, 2014, hosted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs at the 13th Annual Gus Hart Lecture. The discussion was led by Maria Hinojosa, Anchor and Executive Producer, Latino USA, National Public Radio. Ms. Sánchez was the recipient of the 2014 Gus Hart Fellowship.
During the discussion with Yoani Sánchez, Maria Hinojosa stated and asked Yoani: “Many people who are here are very worried about you. They worry when you go back to Cuba, what could happen to you. . . . Do you remember the moment when you realized you were not going to be afraid? ” Yoani responded: “I think it was a sequence of several moments. You don’t lose your fear all of a sudden, one day. I think that at one point, I was afraid of being afraid.”
Life in Cuba Today
In 1959, Castro promised the people of Cuba a Cuban dream, an utopia that was described as offering opportunity for everyone; equality for everyone; one in which there would be no money; and people would get everything they would need. This Cuban dream was promised to three generations of Cubans: Yoani’s parents’ generation, Yoani’s generation, and her son’s generation. Yet the utopia that was promised never occurred. Three generations of Cubans have been deceived and betrayed by the Castro regime.
Instead of what Castro promised the Cuban people, the following is what has actually happened in Cuba during the past 56 years, and continues to happen.
For decades there has not been enough food for Cubans to eat. The food is rationed. Most of the basic consumer products have also been rationed. Cubans need to go to the illegal “black market” to obtain items to survive, such as milk, eggs, meat, etc.
There is a complete lack of freedom in Cuba. Cubans do not have the right to associate freely or to express themselves freely. In other words, it is illegal to express oneself freely in Cuba or to associate with whom one wishes. One cannot go to the street corner to buy a newspaper that is not government run, or use the Internet, or speak out loudly against the government. Yoani stated that Cuba is a country of “whisperers.”
The Cuban government has complete and absolute control of the media. The people of Cuba cannot express themselves on television or radio. Nor do the Cuban people have the opportunity to write freely for the national newspaper. That is why technology has such an important role, Yoani stated. She further stated that flash memory devices allow Yoani and others to share and disseminate information to effect change in Cuba.
People in Cuba have to be resourceful by fixing and rebuilding items that break, such as the pressure cooker, refrigerator, and washer, among other things, because they cannot replace them. For a long time, consumer products were not sold in Cuba. Today, the products are sold but at prices Cubans cannot afford due to prices being too high and salaries being extremely low.
People in Cuba steal food from the government to survive. They have to choose between being honest or feeding their family.
A cook at a tourist hotel in Cuba does not have access to the same quality of food that is served at the tourist hotel unless he or she steals it.
Castro wanted to create a system where people behave like soldiers instead of citizens. He wanted to create a “new man.”
Most children are educated in internal schools away from their families and are constantly subjected to Castro’s ideologies and politics, as are the rest of the people on the island. Yoani described how her son’s generation tends to be apathetic as a result of the Castro regime.
Cuba: 1970’s and 1980’s
During Yoani’s childhood, in the 1970’s and 1980’s, there were controlled rations. Everyone dressed the same because of the rations. She described how each person got one shirt per year and one pair of pants (not two pants, one pant) per year. Girls and women had to choose whether they would wear upper or lower undergarments because they were not able to get both. Everything was controlled and supervised by the government.
Yoani also described how everyone ate the same food: Every 9 days they got chicken; every 3 weeks they got a ration of meat; once per month they got eggs. This situation brought about the Mariel boat crisis in 1980.
Cuba: 1990’s “Special Period”
The “Special Period” is what the Castro regime named the time period during which Cuba was in economic collapse. Yoani described being a teenager during the “Special Period.” Cuba was experiencing an economic collapse after the Berlin wall was torn down. Cuba stopped receiving economic subsidies from the Soviet Union. Yoani described that it was difficult to get food, have transportation, and to get a second shirt.
Castro was forced to make some economic reforms. He instituted a second currency in Cuba, the convertible peso, that still exists today. There are two currencies in Cuba. Additionally, Hugo Chavez from Venezuela started to provide support for Cuba and essentially rescued Cuba from economic collapse.
During the “Special Period,” Yoani described witnessing her friends, colleagues, and school mates trying to get out of the country. They tore down doors from their homes to build boats to leave Cuba. This resulted in the 1994 raft crisis, where thousands of Cubans escaped on makeshift rafts.
Cuba: The Black Spring 2003
In March 2003, Yoani described how Cuba experienced a wave of severe repression that became known as “The Black Spring” or “La Primavera Negra.” She described how the Cuban government took advantage of the fact that all eyes were on the Iraq war. Castro took advantage of that fact to jail many dissidents and journalists in the independent movement. “The Black Spring” had a painful impact on Yoani and her family. She had friends in jail and described having a prevailing feeling of asphyxiation.
Yoani was asked during the discussion: “How many times have you been arrested?” She stated that she has been arrested for hours at a time because one of the characteristics of Raul Castro that is different from Fidel Castro is that Raul Castro incarcerates people for short periods of time.
Raul Castro has plain clothed government police, force you into their car, beat you up, threaten you, then let you go. This way there is no paperwork that the person has been placed in jail. With Raul Castro in power, dissidents have been jailed for short periods of time, sometimes in very violent situations, but not for lengthy periods. Fidel Castro had a pattern of incarcerating dissidents for longer periods of time and making a media show of it.
Yoani revealed that if it were not for social media and technology, she is not sure how it would have turned out for her in the following anecdote that she shared with the audience: On November 6, 2009, a group of friends decided to organize a small peaceful demonstration against violence at a very central corridor in Habana. It was a symbolic act without government authorization. Yoani wanted to go to take pictures so she went with friends.
A friend that was with her had the idea to prepare a tweet on her mobile phone in case they needed to send it through twitter. A small group of the population in Cuba tweets through the text-only service. They call it “blind tweeting” because they cannot read what others are tweeting but they are able to send tweets. Her friend wrote a tweet stating that they had been arrested, in case they needed to send it. Sure enough, shortly before they got to the demonstration, a black car with private license plates approached them, and three plain clothed men got out, stopped Yoani and her friend, and forcefully pulled them into the car. However, before the car door shut, her friend sent the tweet.
In the car the government policeman was pressing his knee against Yoani’s chest in a very violent manner. Yoani described being in a very threatening situation, in pain, when the car started moving. She described feeling powerless, fearful, panicked. However, at that moment, the driver received a phone call and he looked at the guy who was pressing on Yoani’s chest with his knee and told him, “Don’t press too hard on her because they already know about us.” The tweet had protected Yoani and her friend. That is why Yoani is such a great fan of technology. She stated: “It has helped me and protected me.”
Cuba is a Pluralistic Society
Yoani would like America and the rest of the world to understand that Cuba is not Castro. She stated that Cuba, by its nature, is a diverse, pluralistic country with all kinds of people, such as democrats, liberals, and others, who are not allowed by the government to express themselves freely. She believes that it is important that people understand this about Cuba.
Changes Occurring in Cuba
When asked about economic changes that are occurring in Cuba, Yoani responded that the changes are too slow and superficial, yet create the feeling of economic relaxation because one can buy a piece of pizza or buy a pair of shoes instead of having to repair them. There are currently restaurants in Habana that are luxurious and have good food, but from a social and economic development point, Cuba needs more. Changes need to be faster and more profound.
Dependence on Venezuela
When asked about Cuba’s relationship with Venezuela, Yoani stated that Cuba continues to be economically dependent on Venezuela. Some Cubans fear that if the subsidies from Venezuela to Cuba stop because of Chavez’ death and the new leader of Venezuela, Maduro, the “Special Period” will return, which would result in a collapsed economy.
Another group of Cubans believe that if Venezuela stopped providing subsidies to Cuba, Raul Castro will have to accelerate the rate of reform in Cuba, which would be the end of the Castro regime.
How Americans and Others Can Help
When asked, “What American policy would be most helpful to the Cuban people today?” Yoani responded that she did not think of what government can do because it is very bureaucratic in nature. She would rather think about what the people can do and made the following three suggestions:
1. Do away with the myth of the Cuban revolution. “Revolutions do not last 55 years. Lets stop calling it a revolution. The revolution is dead. It was 6 feet under when I was born. Understand that. It is important.”
2. Help the Cuban people by empowering them with technology.
3. If you go to Cuba, take flash drives, computer spare parts, a lap top and give them to Cubans. This can change Cuban lives.
Author’s caveat: there is potential risk of providing these items to the Cuban people, as evidenced by the incarceration of Alan Gross in 2009, who was charged by the Castro regime with crimes against the state. Mr. Gross was sentenced to 15 years in prison for attempting to setup Internet access for the Jewish community in Cuba. There may be ways to provide computer items to the Cuban people, but extreme caution must be taken.
Update: Mr. Gross was released December 17, 2014, after negotiations between the U.S. and Cuban governments, and assistance from the Vatican.
Obstacles to Overthrow Castro’s Regime
When Yoani was asked, “What are the three obstacles to overthrow Castro’s regime,” she stated the following:
1. Fear. Fear is inculcated by the government at a very young age. There is a paralysis of fear. The government instills fear by telling children and others that neighbors, friends, and school mates are informants for the government.
2. Absence of economic infrastructure that allows for a civil economy. The civil economy needs an economy where people do not have to stand in line 4 hours for a loaf of bread.
3. Exodus. Cuba’s best talent, most capable minds, and most rebellious minds are leaving Cuba. Yoani stated: “The average Cuban would rather face sharks in the Florida Straits than a government police officer on the street.”
About Yoani Sánchez
Yoani Sánchez was born in Cuba in 1975, where she graduated from the University of Habana with a degree in Philology. She emigrated to Switzerland in 2002. The two years Yoani spent in Switzerland changed her life. She experienced having access to, and being able to surf on the Internet. She described earning a salary that was dignified. She witnessed how the citizens of Switzerland had the opportunity to vote for social, political, and administrative issues. Yoani decided that she would return to Cuba but was not going to be silent or evasive. She promised herself that she was “going to take off the mask”.
After returning to Cuba from Switzerland, Yoani started her blog, Generation Y, in 2007. The blog was underground because it was not allowed by the government. In her blog, she describes daily living in Cuba. Subsequently, a book with the title: H*vana Real: One Woman Fights to Tell the Truth about Cuba Today, was published in 2011.
Yoani has received many awards for her efforts to disclose the truth about Castro’s regime and towards effecting change in Cuba. She lives in Cuba as a dissident under surveillance by the government.
The entire presentation with Yoani Sánchez can be seen at the following link: Cuba Uncensored with Dissident Yoani Sánchez
Author’s Summary: For over 56 years under Castro’s tyrannical government, basic human rights have been violently repressed, great scarcity of food and consumer goods have existed, and fear has been inculcated in very young children by Castro’s regime. This continues to be the reality of life in Cuba today.
May the people of Cuba and elsewhere, where human rights are repressed, breath freedom soon.
Additional Information About Cuba
The Escape – Cubans Escaping From Cuba, by V. Santamaria
Is Castro Cuban-Americans’ Hitler?”, by Charles Garcia, CNN
Castro’s Medical Mercenaries, by Susan Kitchens, Forbes
Operation Pedro Pan, by V. Santamaria
Videos About Cuba
Cuban Revolution 1959
Is Cuba a Dictatorship?
What Type of Government Does Cuba Have?
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