CubaBrief: Food shortages in the time of COVID-19 and in Cuba in the 1970s, the continuing repression against journalists and the consequences for travelers to the island today.

Pulitzer prize winning journalist Mirta Ojito has written a powerful OpEd in The New York Times connecting her unnerving experiences in today’s supermarkets in the United States in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and growing up in Cuba in the 1970s and 1980s when food was also scarce for the average Cuban, although Soviet subsidies were plentiful for regime. Furthermore there were unexpected shortages for a tropical island such as fish, and seafood generally. The question that arises were these shortages due to a lack of resources, doubtful considering generous Soviet subsidies, or a method of control over the population?

“Many think that Cuba’s problems with food began with the fall of the Berlin Wall, once the Soviet Union stopped subsidizing the Cuban economy. But in the ’60s and ’70s — the years when much of the world was looking at the island as a beacon of progressive thought and lofty ideas — most Cubans didn’t get enough food, toothpaste or toilet paper to get them through the month. I remember standing in endless lines for potatoes only to be told, when it was finally getting close to my turn, that the potatoes had run out. I remember craving a ham and cheese sandwich. I remember running downstairs when I heard the sound of the ice cream truck, relishing the thought of a strawberry cup or a chocolate bar, and finding out they had only melted gallons of vanilla. The freezers were broken. Again. They were out of strawberry. Again. Eventually, the ice cream trucks disappeared altogether. I remember wanting desperately to eat fish and not being able to find one anywhere. Imagine that. We were surrounded by water, and yet, there was no seafood. I’d sometimes dream of apples. I’d wake up just as I was about to bite into one, perhaps because I lacked imagination to conjure up the taste, never having seen an apple except in the movies. In time, I came to understand that talking about food — the yearning for certain kinds of food — was safer than talking about other needs. Food was a metaphor for our more pressing, but forbidden, needs.  

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) published a post on reporter Mónica Baró who has been fined for her Facebook posts. According to CPJ she “is at least the fifth independent journalist fined under Decree 370 since it was passed, according to the Association for Press Freedom, a group that advocates for press freedom in Cuba. Baró said she has refused to sign the official receipt of her fine and has not paid it. She told CPJ she plans to file an appeal. Cuba is one of the most hostile environments for the press in the world, and ranks among CPJ’s 10 Most Censored Countries.”

The Cuban dictatorship’s silencing of independent journalists and the prevalence of an official press that parrots what the regime wants has real world consequences. Last month the Castro regime was claiming through mid-March that travel to Cuba was safe and that tourists had nothing to worry about. A week later flights into the country were shut down and on April 2nd flights out were shut down leaving thousands of tourists trapped in Cuba under conditions that do not match the sunny reporting provided by state media or agents of influence abroad. 

On March 24th press reports indicated there were 32,000 tourists trying to leave, but were being isolated in hotels. This includes hundreds of Americans and U.S. residents that are still trying to get out today, and if they are unable to get out on a limited number of charter flights that have become available will be there for the duration reports Nora Gamez in The Miami Herald that “the embassy warned that U.S. citizens who were not able to secure a ticket for Friday should prepare to remain in Cuba until airports reopen.  ‘We continue to explore options for the repatriation of U.S. citizens who are not traveling on these flights but who wish to return home’.”

The New York Times, April 22, 2020

I Can’t Bring Myself to Stand in Line for Food Again

Memories of empty shelves in Cuba come full circle.

By Mirta Ojito

Ms. Ojito is the author of “Finding Mañana: A Memoir of a Cuban Exodus.”

People waiting in line for basic supplies in Havana during the 1980s.Credit.Walter Rudolph/United Archives Universal Images Group, Getty Images

People waiting in line for basic supplies in Havana during the 1980s.Credit.Walter Rudolph/United Archives Universal Images Group, Getty Images

First, it was the hand sanitizer. Then, Clorox wipes, alcohol, thermometers and Tylenol vanished from the shelves. Soon after, the toilet paper was gone, and then the rolls of paper towels and the napkins, and all the cleaning products. After that, items that had nothing to do with disinfecting surfaces began disappearing as well: boxed unsweetened almond milk, cucumbers, and my favorite sugar-free bar of chocolate. Yesterday, we couldn’t get bacon in our local supermarket or Cookie Crisp cereal or honey ham, which my boys like.

In the past few weeks I’ve found myself momentarily standing in line to shop for food (with proper social distancing and under the Florida sun), wondering if certain items would run out before my turn came, before ditching the line and deciding to go elsewhere. After the White House coronavirus task force warned against even going out to buy groceries or medication, I’ve studied the pantry, trying to calculate how much longer until we have to start rationing food.

I’m not obsessed with food, nor am I a hoarder. The coronavirus has just triggered what a dear friend from New York calls a “cultural memory.” It’s an especially relevant one this year when I’m celebrating my 40th in the United States.

It was 40 years ago next month that I left Cuba with my family in what came to be known as the Mariel boatlift — the biggest mass exodus by sea the hemisphere has seen in recent history. We left in a boat called Mañana, arriving in Key West on May 11, the day that, coincidentally, more Cubans arrived than any other day of the five-month-long boatlift that in total brought more than 125,000 refugees to South Florida.

Most of those Cubans, when asked why they had left their country, mentioned the obvious reasons one flees a dictatorship — a desire to be free and a yearning for personal growth — but I’m sure that even if they didn’t mention it, they were also craving ready access to all the food they could possibly eat.

Cuban refugees wait for U.S. immigration officers aboard the shrimp boat Big Babe at Key West, Fla., soon after arriving in May 1980.Credit.Bettmann Archive, Getty Images

Cuban refugees wait for U.S. immigration officers aboard the shrimp boat Big Babe at Key West, Fla., soon after arriving in May 1980.Credit.Bettmann Archive, Getty Images

That’s because in the Cuba of the ’70s, the Cuba I grew up in, there were severe food shortages. Many think that Cuba’s problems with food began with the fall of the Berlin Wall, once the Soviet Union stopped subsidizing the Cuban economy. But in the ’60s and ’70s — the years when much of the world was looking at the island as a beacon of progressive thought and lofty ideas — most Cubans didn’t get enough food, toothpaste or toilet paper to get them through the month.

I remember standing in endless lines for potatoes only to be told, when it was finally getting close to my turn, that the potatoes had run out. I remember craving a ham and cheese sandwich. I remember running downstairs when I heard the sound of the ice cream truck, relishing the thought of a strawberry cup or a chocolate bar, and finding out they had only melted gallons of vanilla. The freezers were broken. Again. They were out of strawberry. Again. Eventually, the ice cream trucks disappeared altogether.

I remember wanting desperately to eat fish and not being able to find one anywhere. Imagine that. We were surrounded by water, and yet, there was no seafood. I’d sometimes dream of apples. I’d wake up just as I was about to bite into one, perhaps because I lacked imagination to conjure up the taste, never having seen an apple except in the movies.

In time, I came to understand that talking about food — the yearning for certain kinds of food — was safer than talking about other needs. Food was a metaphor for our more pressing, but forbidden, needs.

I know a couple who told me they left the island the day Fidel Castro announced that milk production was low and, therefore, there would be a shortage of butter that year. My friend looked at her husband and said, “Fernando, we have to go, I can’t live without butter.”

My friends were artists. By the time milk became a problem, artists had been ostracized, priests and nuns had been exiled, religious schools had been closed, and many who opposed or simply didn’t obey the dictates of the revolution had been jailed, executed or sent to reform camps. It’s possible that the looming lack of butter was the trigger that prompted their departure, but I know their angst and needs ran deeper.

About 18 years ago I interviewed my parents for a book I wrote about the boatlift. They were 20 when Fidel Castro came to power and 40 when they left Cuba. I asked them how they could put up with the scarcities and the repression for so long. How could they bear wasting their best years standing in endless lines for meager rations and quashing their true selves?

My mother told me that they had learned to live with it. “It didn’t happen all at once, you see,” she said. “One day you go shopping and you find there is no soap, but you hope it’ll come another day and you go on. The following week, there is no chicken, so you don’t make a soup, you make something else, and you hope things will get better. And life goes on and the years pass. Then, suddenly, 10, 15 years later, one day you realize there is no food in the pantry, no shampoo, all your friends have left and you’ve lost your freedom. By then it’s too late.”

I think about that now, as I contemplate the empty shelves in the supermarket aisles. Everyone is quiet, wearing their masks, as we all should, and keeping our distance, as we’ve been told to do. The herd behavior both soothes and unnerves me.

Toilet paper, paper towels and other items were in short supply at stores in America last month during the coronavirus outbreak.Credit. Mike Blake/Reuters

Toilet paper, paper towels and other items were in short supply at stores in America last month during the coronavirus outbreak.Credit. Mike Blake/Reuters

On a recent trip to the grocery store I asked the manager where the cucumbers were. He told me I needed to get there earlier. What about the chocolate? He didn’t know about the chocolate. I wrote an email to the company in Minneapolis, asking if they stopped producing the unsweetened cocoa bars I like because of the pandemic. “No,” someone wrote back right away. “Ask your store manager.”

I will again, when I return. But for now, I’m ordering my groceries online. I can’t bring myself to stand in line for food again. I hope I won’t have to. I pray it won’t come to that. Adapting to a new normal can be a good thing or a slippery slope. First, the good mustard on aisle two disappears. Then, what’s next? What else are we expected or willing to live without?

Mirta Ojito (@MirtaOjito), a former reporter for The Times, is the author of “Finding Mañana: A Memoir of a Cuban Exodus.”

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Committee to Protect Journalists, April 21, 2020

Cuban journalist Mónica Baró fined over Facebook posts under new internet decree

Miami, April 21, 2020 — Cuban authorities must drop the fine imposed on reporter Mónica Baró and refrain from using Decree 370 to harass independent journalists, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On April 17, the National Revolutionary Police of the Ministry of the Interior summoned Baró, a reporter for the independent digital news magazine El Estornudo, to their offices in Havana, where agents interrogated her for over two hours and accused her of working for outlets that accept funding from foreign organizations seeking to “overthrow the Cuban revolution,” according to Baró, who spoke to CPJ in a phone interview, and press reports.

At the end of the interrogation, Ministry of Communications inspectors showed Baró a file containing numerous posts from her personal Facebook account, including some posted months ago, and fined her 3,000 Cuban pesos ($120), Baró told CPJ.

Authorities alleged that she violated Article 68(i) of Decree 370, a rule banning the dissemination of “information contrary to the social interest, morals, good manners and integrity of people” on public networks. When Decree 370 was issued in 2019, CPJ warned that it provided a legal tool for Cuban authorities to persecute the independent press.

“Cuban authorities should stop harassing Mónica Baró and other independent journalists on the island who report on social and political issues,” said CPJ Central and South America Program Coordinator Natalie Southwick, in New York. “Cuba should urgently review Decree 370 which, as CPJ warned when it was enacted, has become an additional device in the regime’s ever-expanding toolkit to target critical voices and silence the press.”

Baró told CPJ that she was shown the file of Facebook posts quickly, and was only able to identify one post, from the previous day, when she had commented that she received the Ministry of Interior summons and questioned its legality. She said that the interrogators had not discussed her Facebook posts, and had repeatedly talked about the alleged sources of funding for news organizations she has written for.

Baró’s posts on Facebook include personal posts and links to her reporting for El Estornudo.

Baró is at least the fifth independent journalist fined under Decree 370 since it was passed, according to the Association for Press Freedom, a group that advocates for press freedom in Cuba.

Baró said she has refused to sign the official receipt of her fine and has not paid it. She told CPJ she plans to file an appeal.

Cuba is one of the most hostile environments for the press in the world, and ranks among CPJ’s 10 Most Censored Countries.

CPJ called the Cuban Ministry of Communications for comment, but no one answered.

https://cpj.org/2020/04/cuban-journalist-monica-baro-fined-over-facebook-p.php  

The Miami Herald, April 23, 2020

Americans stranded in Cuba by coronavirus events will return in charter flights 

BY NORA GÁMEZ TORRES

Americans stranded in Cuba after the government shut down air travel due to the coronavirus pandemic will be able to return to Miami on Friday, the U.S. embassy in Havana said. 

The embassy helped coordinate two Delta Airlines charter flights departing Friday morning and already notified those selected to travel. Passengers will pay around $340 for the airline tickets. They were told to expect a full flight and wear a mask since the airline would not be able to enforce social distancing. 

A State Department spokesperson said the number of seats was limited. If demand exceeds availability, officials in charge of the repatriation effort will prioritize “U.S. citizens deemed at higher risk of severe illness, followed by U.S. citizen minors and their U.S. citizen parents, or one foreign national parent, followed by all other U.S. citizens.”

Permanent U.S. residents do not qualify for a higher priority but could also fly if there are spare seats, the official said.  The embassy warned that U.S. citizens who were not able to secure a ticket for Friday should prepare to remain in Cuba until airports reopen.  “We continue to explore options for the repatriation of U.S. citizens who are not traveling on these flights but who wish to return home. 

However, there are no additional charter flights scheduled at this time,” the embassy said on Twitter.  On March 24, the Cuban government banned the entry of tourists and travelers and ordered Cuban nationals not to travel abroad. On April 2, the authorities effectively suspended air travel, leaving hundreds of Americans, mostly of Cuban origin, stranded on the island.  

Many Cuban Americans who are U.S. citizens were not allowed to leave the island even before April 1 because they had acquired permanent residence in Cuba through a process known as repatriation. Most do not live on the island but use that legal status to inherit property or benefit from the public health system. 

But that legal status makes them subject to the decisions of Cuban authorities.  Some are hoping to get on the Friday flights and return to the U.S.  Since Cuba does not recognize the U.S. nationality of Cuban-born U.S. citizens, the island’s government might treat them exclusively as Cuban citizens and may subject them to travel restrictions, the State Department spokesperson told the Herald.  

The officials said the U.S. “has advocated for the departure of these Cuban-American dual nationals and will continue to do so.”  As of April 19, the State Department’s Repatriation Task Force has facilitated the return of more than 64,000 Americans from 110 countries.  

Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres

https://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/cuba/article242240276.html