The Thaw that Never Was (II)

It was not until Nixon’s resignation and the arrival in the White House of Gerald Ford that Kissinger gave the green light to his detente plan with Cuba. The first part consisted of hinting to Castro of his intentions to negotiate, something of which Ford was aware to some extent and which, being a very personal initiative of the Secretary of State, had to be done behind the backs of the CIA and the FBI. Every step was executed in top-secret fashion, in the manner of the most cliché-laden spy movies: hidden recordings, meetings between agents in disguise and under false identities, coded messages.

Once he got Castro’s attention, Kissinger made his demands known –which he was willing to change depending on the direction the negotiations took and on how much the dictator was able to concede–: compensation for the expropriations at the beginning of the Revolution, freedom for US prisoners in Cuban jails, improvements in human rights on the island and withdrawal of the regime’s support for insurgent groups in Latin America. For his part, Castro called for an end to the embargo, an end to violations of Cuban airspace and terrorist activities by Cuban exiles in the US, the return of the territory occupied by the Guantanamo Naval Base and Washington’s support for Cuba’s reinsertion into the Organization of American States (OAS).

The rounds of talks hardly served to finalize agreements. Each side acted warily, always waiting for the other to take the initiative and meet its demands. Kissinger was not discouraged, and he patiently waited for his counterpart to take the first step. However, everything fell apart when the Cuban government sent military troops to assist the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola. This seemed to Ford to be a mockery of Castro and he complained to his Secretary of State, who had no choice but to close momentarily the secret channels of dialogue.

The Cuban leader then felt he had the upper hand, since he could maintain the eternal bilateral conflict with the support of the Socialist Camp. In addition, he had gradually reestablished ties with a good part of the countries of the hemisphere. The latter made Kissinger consider abandoning the dialogue for a longer period of time, since he thought that if the United States gave in on any issue related to Cuba, everything would appear to be the result of diplomatic pressure from Latin American governments, which, in turn, could be taken as a sign of weakness on his part.

A brake and a setback

The obese man in the monochromatic polo shirt summons you again. This will be “our” second mission, he says, a very important one, the most important, and it has to do with Barack Obama’s visit. You hope the order is to participate in the coverage of the visit, to be allowed to see the President of the United States and, above all, to be given tickets for the much-announced baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuba team at the Latin American Stadium. But that’s not what the mission is about.

The order is clear. The day Obama lands in Havana, you will go with your companions to a concert of QVA Libre, a small group of which you barely know a song, and only because they have played it ad nauseam on TV. However, first you must go through the Pablo de la Torriente technological school, where they will give you a T-shirt with a “revolutionary” phrase stamped on it and some other more specific instructions. You, the chosen ones, the elite group of journalists, will then be taken to the concert and, almost by obligation, you must dance, sing, laugh and pretend you don’t want to be anywhere else but there.

“Nearby, some counterrevolutionary groups are gathering who are against the new relations with the United States and who may want to spoil the concert. We are going to give those people a revolutionary response. The foreign media will surely be there, but if you ask them, they will say that you were there, enjoying yourselves, and that these people were there to provoke you. Then go back to the school to register your participation and receive your tickets for the baseball game”.

You are naïve, but not so naïve as not to know that the Pablo de la Torriente technological school, in the municipality of Playa, is very close to the church of Santa Rita de Casia, where the Ladies in White meet every Sunday. Like the rest of the team, you promise to go. But you know well that on that day you will be at home in front of the TV or sleeping. You say you will go because you don’t want any trouble. Better to disobey and disappear, and if they insist, fake an illness or the death of a close relative; anything not to beat the mothers, wives, sisters and daughters of Cuban political prisoners. If you ever wondered what was the limit of your ability to lower your head and follow orders, here it is, this is it. Now you know. And the baseball game… shove it up their asses!

You spend the time of Obama’s visit at your parents’ house. You watch him speak on TV and his speech seems magnificent, very measured, each of his sentences well calculated. Obama presents himself as the prophet of a new era. What he comes to say pleases, convinces anyone who listens to him. Since Fidel Castro –and now Mick Jagger–, no speaker has seduced so much in this country. How was it that in barely a decade we have gone from euphorically applauding a man who called for austerity and sacrifice to falling in love with another who promises wealth and prosperity? The one who has not deserved applause is Raul Castro, who always seems uncomfortable, like an actor who not only forgot to prepare for his character, but also hates the role he has been assigned. With no one to compare himself to but the memory of his brother, Raul Castro seemed a bit of a simpleton when it came to speaking, a guy without any charm. With Obama at his side, however, his mediocrity shines through. His voice trembles, he begs for an end to that tortuous custom of democracies that are press conferences. The Cuban president wants to run away from the stage like a child who, suddenly, in a school event, does not remember the poem he has to declaim in front of the whole school. A journalist asks him if there are political prisoners in Cuba. The question demands a “yes” or a “no” as an answer, and perhaps a complement, the usual one: “In Cuba only those convicted of common crimes are in prison”. However, Raul Castro answers: “Give me the list of political prisoners right now, to release them. Give me a name, or the names, or when the meeting is over, give me a list. And if there are those political prisoners, before nightfall they will be released”. Raul Castro’s cynicism is not premeditated, but the effect of clumsiness. His response is not really that of a dictator, or at least not of one who prides himself on being one, but that of a nervous little boy seeking to escape the quagmire without bursting into tears.

Obama’s speech at the Gran Teatro de La Habana surpassed his short speeches at the press conference. Among the select guests invited to listen to him, many applaud out of obligation, but you are sure that there are also those who do it with desire, because they want everything that the President has come to sell. You think that, if Obama were Cuban and tomorrow democratic elections were called in the country, we would have the first black president in our history. The cameras capture Obama leaving the theater. It is time for the recount. The same journalist who a few minutes ago supported the offer of a new era of peace between the two countries and praised the Democratic leader’s willingness to dialogue, now repeats the old discourse of hostility, that of the eternal enemy. “He has the audacity to invite us to forget our history…”, “Again the imperialist policy…”, “He has given a sign of soft power that seeks to subjugate us…”, the interviewees also say.

When you return to the faculty, the members of the elite group talk about the baseball game and share photos of the moment. Luckily, no one noticed your absence.

Many things change after Obama’s visit. For example, several professors ask for papers related to self-employment. The topic begins to gain a public interest as if it was only yesterday that private property was allowed in Cuba. Well, not private property, “non-state property”, which seems to be a euphemism designed to prevent heart attacks among the regime’s old guard. All class assignments must follow the same maxim: “economic power is political power”, so your mission and that of your classmates is to reaffirm that idea, to demonstrate that it is true in front of the classroom, to the teachers’ complacency. Of course, they cannot say that entrepreneurship –a suspiciously bourgeois word, but a more acceptable one– is negative per se. After all, it was Raul Castro who allowed it, so even the most orthodox revolutionaries do well to keep quiet and pretend to welcome the President’s initiative with open arms. Of course, you can be self-employed, but do not get swept away by the sweetness of the bonanza, which is the siren song of Capitalism. “You have to be careful, because Capitalism is a self-propelled system,” Esteban Morales told you in an interview for your thesis.

The thing is that you can be entrepreneurial, but that entrepreneurship cannot generate too much wealth. And you ask yourself: what is too much wealth? “Let’s see, so that you understand, the state must take care of many important things and cannot be aware of how many croquettes the state-run coffee shop on the corner sells. That’s what the self-employed are for,” another professor explains. Entrepreneurship, you understand then, is just that: selling croquettes. Anything else is bourgeois greed, counterrevolution.

Havana Fashion has its days numbered

* * *

From the beginning, Democratic President Jimmy Carter was very optimistic about the idea of resuming the secret channels of dialogue with Cuba that his predecessors had opened and closed countless times. The mission of getting closer to Castro then fell on the shoulders of Polish-born political scientist Zbigniew Brzezinski, the new National Security Advisor. The talks between envoys of both governments took place in third countries, as was customary; however, the Cuban side began to press for them to be held in Havana. The Cuban envoys argued that certain issues should be discussed directly with Fidel Castro. Washington disagreed, as bringing the dialogue to the island would risk the secrecy of the matter and, if it came to light, the world would get the idea that it was the Cuban dictator who dominated the meetings.

In any case, this new round of negotiations was doomed to failure, since Castro was very comfortable under Soviet protection and Brzezinski believed that trying to reach an understanding with the Cuban leader was an unnecessary waste of energy and resources for the White House. If for Kissinger improving relations with the island only guaranteed to improve the image of the United States in Latin America during the years of Operation Condor, for Brzezinski it was only, in his words, “an erogenous zone of US foreign policy” since, although “Cuba generated emotion, it did not really matter much”.

After months of secret dialogues, Fidel Castro decided in 1978 to make certain concessions and allow some exiles to visit the island. Indirectly this influenced the Peruvian Embassy Crisis of 1980, which Carter used to remind the world that Cubans were living under a dictatorship. Castro responded with the Mariel boatlift and the closing of the possibilities of understanding until further notice.

Alternative Journalism

You wanted to meet Elaine Díaz almost as soon as you started your degree, and belong to that cool group (or who saw themselves as cool) by the mere fact of meeting her. At least among the students, saying you knew Elaine Díaz gave you a certain prestige. In the hallways, at all hours, that woman was praised as “excellent teacher” as well as “excellent person”. You feared that at any moment someone would remember –as they remembered such a master class or the time she helped I don’t know who– a miracle, and that the proofs would be sent to the Vatican, and then Professor Elaine Díaz would overtake Father Félix Varela in record time in the race for sanctification. The miracle, in fact, was already consummated: she had won a scholarship to Harvard!

Today, down the hallways, you learn that Elaine Díaz has returned from her scholarship. The news of her return, however, has not sparked the euphoria you expected. “Elaine is a motherfucker. I mean, what she did was no good,” you hear one of her most fervent worshippers say, a student who, you will learn years later, serves as the informal organizer of the faculty’s repressive brigade.

What you hear leaves you stunned: What has Saint Elaine Díaz, the prodigal daughter of the Cuban Academy of Journalism, done to be so disowned after her return? You are ashamed to ask because, you know, not being aware of Elaine Díaz is like admitting that you don’t belong there. So you wander the halls hoping to hear more. “So that’s what her little scholarship at Harvard was for. You don’t do that. She’s a traitor,” someone says. Curiosity eats you up inside as more and more such comments reach your ears. You even hear someone say: “Don’t even talk about her”. But, yes, let them talk, let them finally say what Elaine Diaz did.

As always when a class is over, you go downstairs to smoke with your friends. Books, movies, gossip; the usual topics of conversation… Today, luckily, the gossip on duty is just what you want to hear.

“Did you see the mess with Elaine?,” says one.

“Yes. Phew. Now she’s persona non grata, public enemy number one. They want to lynch her because of that media she opened. What’s it called?”.

Periodismo de Barrio”.

“And now what? Is she going to be Yoani Sánchez 2.0?”.

“Nobody said she was counterrevolutionary. Her project of opening an alternative media, as she explained it, does not sound bad. What is, let’s say, suspicious is that she did it just when she returned from Harvard. And I think they even gave him money for it and everything. From the United States they don’t give you money just like that, for free, to open an alternative media”.

“Alternative” is the buzzword. It is normal that, as the country becomes fashionable, the emerging non-state media call themselves that way. By the time the Thaw ends, relations between Cuba and the United States will still be an iceberg and nothing will be fashionable anymore, political repression will return without masks or disguises and the media that used to be “alternative” will become “independent”. But all this will happen later. For the time being, digital magazines are born and are more ignored than attacked, or they are attacked with a certain “subtlety”.

Hugo Cancio. Facebook

There is a variety to choose from: sports, more local or environmentalist, showbiz and fashion, everything and nothing at the same time, brief, with bombastic writing… This is a boom of journalism in Cuba, enabled by the precarious access to the Internet that is beginning to exist on the island. The academy does not look favorably upon it. The state-owned press seems forced to ignore it. At most they point out, and never in good terms, OnCuba, the magazine of a Cuban-American businessman, a “Marielito” named Hugo Cancio. Why only focus on OnCuba and pretend that the others do not exist? Why attack OnCuba while, in tiny desks next to a noisy printing office far from the center of the city, the workers of Cubadebate and La Mesa Redonda, media that were once made by and for Fidel Castro, complain about being there and, above all, about the fact that Hugo Cancio’s magazine is located in the comfortable building in Vedado where they used to be?

* * *

They say that Congressman Robert G. Torricelli wrote the Cuban Democracy Act (“Torricelli Act”) in Coral Gables, surrounded by his friends from the Cuban American Foundation. It is also said that this politician did nothing more than translate what was dictated to him by his powerful Cuban exile cronies, who wanted to broaden the powers of the embargo to include the possibility of applying sanctions to US companies and foreign governments that maintained some kind of preferential treatment with Cuba. No one can be sure that Robert G. Torricelli only acted as a scribe or translator. What is certain is that just a few months later he became the chief Latin America advisor to Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign.

The core of the Cuban exile community, which by then had regained the political influence it had enjoyed for decades and was celebrating the fall of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe, offered its support to Clinton, something strange in a community that had historically been linked to Republican politicians. This support materialized in the contribution of substantial funds to his electoral campaign, although that was not enough for him to win Florida’s electoral votes. In any case, the future President of the United States had already made a pact that was very difficult to break.

Clinton believed that without the protection and aid of the USSR, Cuba would need a “soft landing in democracy”, so he tried not to be too aggressive with the Caribbean dictatorship. If the economic crisis of the so-called Special Period reached truly extreme limits, the shortages would translate into unprecedented political chaos. For Washington, it was more viable to deal with the usual regime than with an unstable country plunged in violence. The Democrat took a first step toward understanding with Havana by promoting people-to-people exchanges and easing restrictions on travel by Americans to Cuba, as well as by Cuban intellectuals and artists to the US. Moreover, in 1993, he prevented the Alpha 66 organization from receiving a shipment of weapons that was supposed to be used for an armed uprising on the island. For his part, Castro responded to this courtesy with the release of several US prisoners and the capture and extradition of US criminals seeking refuge in Cuban waters. So far, so good.

Soon Clinton would confirm his suspicions about the chaos and violence that the economic crisis could unleash when news of the sinking of the tugboat “13 de Marzo” reached his ears. In the early morning hours of July 13, 1994, Cuban forces rammed an old boat in which 72 citizens were attempting to emigrate illegally and escape the misery on the island. The ramming killed 41 people, including minors. The international condemnation, particularly from the Cuban exile community, put Clinton between a rock and a hard place; in Florida, Cubans felt that the President was being too complacent with the dictatorship. The Raft Crisis further strained the situation and the Democratic President was forced to take some measures regarding Cuba, such as cutting back on remittances and increasing funds to finance Radio and Television Martí. The Cuban American Foundation demanded, in addition, to impose a naval blockade on the island, but Clinton chose to reject that demand. The tenant of the Oval Office knew that all was not lost. The signing of migratory agreements with Cuba made it possible to open new secret channels of communication with Castro, who, for the first time in a long time, seemed willing to dialogue. On this occasion, the messenger was Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez, a close friend of the Cuban ruler and author of the American’s favorite novel.

The dialogue was going smoothly when Castro ordered the shooting down of two planes belonging to the Cuban-American organization Brothers to the Rescue, which, although not violent, had violated Cuban airspace on several occasions. These events precipitated the end of the secret talks and served the hard core of Cuban exiles to pressure Clinton and demand payment of their old debt. Much to his regret –Clinton would later admit– the “Helms-Burton Act” was passed, which further strengthened the embargo. However, Clinton always avoided the sanctions being applied with all the harshness demanded from Florida.

Towards the end of the 1990s, the Special Period was leaving behind its most critical moments. While the US president did not rule out new channels of secret dialogue, Castro found in the case of the rafter child Elian González another reason to reinforce the anti-US rhetoric and to promote the next great propaganda campaign inside the island.

The rest of the story you already know.

Cachivache

You get your first job, that is, for the first time someone thinks a few paragraphs written by you deserve to be rewarded. It is Cachivache Media, one of those trendy “alternative media”; a digital magazine for young people that covers technology, music, videogames, comics and cinema. You are only a contributor, but you try to write two or three texts a month, and thus ensure a salary of between 40 and 60 convertible pesos.

Cachivache is a bit of a mystery to you. Most of its original team is about your age, and almost all of them already formed a kind of staff in another, no less intriguing, project: “La oficina de René” (“René’s Office”). Located on the first floor of a building on 23rd Avenue, between F and G Streets, “the office” brought together a group of young journalists, communicators and designers who, under the leadership of René González, the first of the five Cuban spies released by the US government, produced communicative products against the embargo and in favor of the reestablishment of relations between Cuba and the United States. Or so you thought.

Image from Cachivache Media

“La oficina de René” disappeared one fine day, after December 17, 2014, and almost a year later Cachivache Media emerged. The team remained, except for two or three casualties and one or two additions. Its headquarters was a comfortable place, enabled with high-speed navigation. Then it moved to an apartment in a small building located on O Street, closer to Infanta than 23rd Street, where it maintained that fast and unrestricted internet service that amazes you.

It’s late. You go to pick up a payment and ask what other topic they are interested in, or if they need you on one of their podcasts to talk about the latest Hollywood commercial hit. Your acquaintances greet you somewhat seriously, or pretend to be very busy. They don’t need any text at the moment; they’ll call you if they come up with one. You sign the list of contributors and are about to leave when a gust of wind opens the back door and you see David Vázquez, the young director of the magazine, deep in a conversation with Rosa Miriam Elizalde, director of Cubadebate, who everyone says will be the next president of the Union of Journalists of Cuba (UPEC), an organization that welcomes journalists from the state media and, of course, rejects –and attacks– those who work in alternative media. You do not manage to hear the conversation. David Vázquez notices that the door has opened and gets up quickly to close it.

It is the first time you seriously wonder about Cachivache Media: Why doesn’t the official press attack it, even subtly, if it is an alternative media? What is Rosa Miriam Elizalde doing there? If the official media usually question the origin of the funds of their alternative rivals as a way of justifying their illegality and their links to the US government, why is this not the case with Cachivache? Where do the money you receive monthly and the fast Internet connection in the office come from?

Since its inception, the magazine claimed to be sponsored by Resumen Latinoamericano. A quick Google search informs you that it is a media with little presence in social networks and with a web platform even more precarious than Cachivache’s. Its content and visuals are more similar to those of an abandoned first generation blog than those of a press agency. In the statement of its editorial policy you read that it is a space committed “with the various struggles that were taking place in the Third World against Capitalism, Imperialism, and Patriarchy”. His team also includes Graciela Ramírez. It all starts to make sense. Cachivache Media was born out of “René’s office”. Graciela Ramírez, on the other hand, is more than just an Argentinean sympathizer of the Cuban regime; for many years she was the main coordinator of the International Committee for the Liberation of the Five, an organization promoted and financed by the Cuban government. At first you assume that the funding for both projects —Cachivache Media and Resumen Latinoamericano— comes from the same place, and you are convinced when you go to pick up your paycheck on another day and discover another sly conversation between David Vázquez and one of the guys in jeans and monochromatic polo shirt you have met in the last two years, who is sitting where you saw Rosa Miriam Elizalde before.

It all makes sense. Certainly, the Ministry of Interior is not at all interested in funding reviews of video games, comics and Netflix series, but rather rehearses a facade to disguise the lack of freedom of expression on the island. While several alternative media are ignored, not recognized or directly censored, Cachivache Media would offer some idea of openness in terms of information; it would be possible to say to those who doubt about the government’s intention to respond with relaxations to Obama’s policy: “Look, there are non-state media in Cuba, and we do not persecute them”.

Barack Obama will finish his term and Donald Trump will follow him. In Cuba they will cling to the idea that a businessman like Trump will put aside ideological distances and continue the policies of his predecessor, only under the logic of business is business. Big mistake. The Republican will reverse the Thaw. Havana will cease to be fashion and Cachivache Media will close almost immediately, with unconvincing excuses. The alternative media will become “independent” and will suffer the constant siege of the political police of your country. It will be a real witch-hunt and by then you will be there, in the place of the hunt. Those guys who a few years before entrusted you with “missions” will be the same ones who will chase you, lock you up in your own house, cut your Internet, interrogate you, try to blackmail you and promise you a lifetime in prison. And you will never feel more useful and happy than in those days.

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DARÍO ALEJANDRO ALEMÁN
DARÍO ALEJANDRO ALEMÁN
Darío Alejandro Aleman. Cuban journalist based in Mexico.

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