After Arab Spring, Cuban Dissidents Look For 'Spark That Ignites The Whole Country”

Blogger Yoani Sanchez and dissident Guillermo Fariñas can taste the wave of the Arab uprising from the shores of Cuba. But the Castro regime shows no signs it's wobbling just yet.

Jean Arnaud Mistral

HAVANA/SANTA CLARA – Inconspicuous under her sunglasses and dark blue raincoat, Yoani Sánchez moves and talks at the speed of light. From time to time, she looks over her shoulder to make sure that no Cuban state security agent has followed her into the cafeteria where we are sitting. She says that, for security reasons, she will not be able to be here long. At 35, this world famous blogger (the Spanish language version of her blog gets as many as 15 million visitors each month) knows that the Castro regime has her number.

The latest government attack came on March 21, when a broadcast on the official Cubavision channel accused Sánchez of being part of a "cyber war" waged by the American enemy with the aim of "demonizing" socialism. "This is a new form of invasion ..., not with bombs but with algorithms and bytes," ran the broadcast. The response from the embattled blogger did not take long, in the form of an ironic tweet sent through her cell phone: "I'm so happy. The alternative Cuban blogosphere is finally present on state television, although it is to insult us!

Today in the cafeteria, Sánchez seems tired. Rather small and slender, she came accompanied by her sister, who tells her they should be on their way. "We Cubans are not allowed free access to the internet, so I have to outwit the authorities and post new messages on my blog through foreign friends who enter and leave the island."

The authorities have good reasons to fear Sánchez. Her blog is translated into 20 languages, from Bulgarian to Korean, she has been recognized by foreign press outlets and human rights organizations, and she is regularly invited to international conferences, such as last February in Spain for a conference on "Ibero-American e-networks." But the Castro regime systematically denies her the right to leave the island. "My passport is filled with all these pretty but unnecessary visas," she smiles while throwing back her long black hair. She says she was twice abducted, in November 2009 and February 2010, in a van and then beaten in a police station. "Since now I am protected by my international fame, the regime continues to attack me by means of defamation."

If the Castro brothers think of Sánchez as a threat, it is not only because she paints an unflattering portrait of the island nation to the outside world, but for the fact that her discordant voice has resonated among the Cuban population. "I can see that whenever I walk in the streets: people come to talk to me, they quietly congratulate me and sometimes even kiss me. I enjoy a real wave of sympathy."

In Cuba, all information is carefully controlled, and no media other than state-controlled outlets are authorized to publish or broadcast. Most of the island's citizens know nothing about political prisoners, who number 105 people, according to Amnesty International, or the 3,000 to 5,000 active dissidents who exist according to the International Federation for Human Rights.

Why then are so many people able to recognize Yoani and a handful of other dissidents in the streets? "Basically because the internet is so porous," says a dissident based in Havana. "The regime is very worried about this situation, especially after the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. The government has spent millions of dollars for a state-of-the-art system allowing total communication blackout in case of riots."

Even if the system is not yet flawless, many of the 11 million Cubans cannot benefit from these "leaks' because of the lack of computers. But pirate satellite dishes (sometimes hidden in buildings' garbage cans!), and those who do have access to the Internet and e-mails -- expatriates, embassies, doctors, companies – help spread the information behind the government's back.

So groups of bloggers and Internet users can convey the information that official TV channels or radio stations prefer to keep silenced. The benefits obtained by the ‘glorious revolution" which took place 52 years ago have lately been contradicted by talk about countless families from the eastern part of the island living in great poverty; or about health centers that are shedding their clients because the best doctors were sent to Venezuela; about the high level of corruption among senior military, or about the growing number of people who commit suicide by jumping off high buildings.

An earthworm named Coco

Other regions and cities are also experiencing this form of silent contestation. Santa Clara, a large town situated 270 kilometers east of the capital, is home to another dissident giving the government a hard time. Even more than Sánchez, Guillermo Fariñas is perceived as a major threat; he is often depicted as the toughest of gusanos (or earthworms), and authorities refer to him as a "counter-revolutionary pursuing the aims of American imperialism."

A journalist and a columnist, "Coco" Fariñas has relentlessly spoken out about the anger in the countryside, about food shortages and about the people's exasperation with censorship. He has also set up networks of former political prisoners, disgruntled officials who were silenced, and peasants forced to sell their crops to authorities for mockingly low prices. Just like Sánchez, "Coco" Fariñas has been spreading, with the help of a foreign embassy, these voices of revolt​ on the Internet.

The last thing that the Castro regime would need is for Fariñas to become a martyr. Winner of the Sakharov Prize last year, this very stubborn gusano has held a total of 23 hunger strikes. The latest in 2010 almost killed him. For five months, Fariñas refused to eat or drink, and had to be given intravenous feeding by force. The reason for this rebellion was the death of Zapata Tamayo in February 2010, a death authorities blamed on his hunger strike. "Tamayo died because he was denied water," says Fariñas whose own 135-day hunger strike resulted in 52 dissidents being released in July 2010. Eleven more have been released since them.

"Coco" Fariñas receives us in his modest yellow house in number 615 calle Aleman on the outskirts of Santa Clara. He has recently been detained for three days by Units 3 and 4 of the National Revolutionary Police (PNR) of Santa Clara. With his shaved head, long emaciated body, he speaks slowly and with difficulty. His health is hanging by a thread: he suffers from a thrombosis in his jugular vein, another in the left forearm as well as from a weak heart and lungs, consequences of his repeated hunger strikes.

According to him, the situation is ripe for a new revolution. Everywhere he looks, he sees signs of the government losing its grip. "They present the economic reforms as a sign of openness, but in truth the regime has no choice," Fariñas says. "During my arrest, military and party officials showed me their sympathy, something that was previously unimaginable."

Between two bouts of coughing, he whispers: "I know perfectly well that the system does not care one bit about my hunger strikes, as long as I stay alive. What they fear are people taking to the streets. If that happens, would they dare shoot them down? That is the question."

In Havana, a dissident named Elizardo Sanchez is more doubtful: "It is true that the regime still hasn't forgotten the popular uprisings of 1994. But the repressive apparatus is still very strong. In a little more than fifty years the number of prisons on this island has sprung from 14 to 200. We are talking about a real gulag here. There are 80,000 prisoners in those prisons, but their capacity is one million. The regime can also count on a control body of senior military officers, modeled on the East Germany's Stasi."

But this is not enough to break the optimism of "Coco" Fariñas's, who dreams of an Arabic spring on the Cuban island. "Cuba is like a field where it has not rained for months. I'm waiting for the spark that ignites the whole country."

Read the original article in French.

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Preparing a COVID-19 vaccine booster in Huzhou, China.

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Ciao!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where Brazil's senate backs "crimes against humanity" charges against Jair Bolsonaro, the UN has a grim new climate report and Dune gets a sequel. Meanwhile, German daily Die Welt explores "Xi Jinping Thought," which is now being made part of Chinese schools' curriculum.



• Senators back Bolsonaro criminal charges: A Brazilian Senate panel has backed a report that supports charging President Jair Bolsonaro with crimes against humanity, for his alleged responsibility in the country's 600,000-plus COVID-19 deaths.

• Gas crisis in Moldova following Russian retaliation: Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries, has for the first time challenged Russia's Gazprom following a price increase and failed contract negotiations, purchasing instead from Poland. In response, Russia has threatened to halt sales to the Eastern European country, which has previously acquired all of its gas from Gazprom.

• New UN climate report finds planned emission cuts fall short: The Emissions Gap Report 2021 concludes that country pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions aren't large enough to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 °C degrees this century. The UN Environment Program predicts a 2.7 °C increase, with significant environmental impacts, but there is still hope that longer term net-zero goals will curtail some temperature rise.

• COVID update: As part of its long-awaited reopening, Australia will officially allow its citizens to travel abroad without a government waiver for the first time in more than 18 months. Bulgaria, meanwhile, hits record daily high COVID-19 cases as the Eastern European's hotel and restaurant association is planning protests over the implementation of the vaccination "green pass." In the U.S., a panel of government medical advisors backed the use of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for five to 11-year-olds.

• U.S. appeals decision to block Julian Assange extradition: The United States said it was "extremely disappointed" in a UK judge's ruling that Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, would be a suicide risk of he traveled across the Atlantic. In the U.S., he faces 18 charges related to the 2010 release of 500,000 secret files related to U.S. military activity.

• Deposed Sudan prime minister released: Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has been released from custody, though remains under heavy guard after Sudan's military coup. Protests against the coup have continued in the capital Khartoum, as Hamdok has called for the release of other detained governmental officials.

Dune Part 2 confirmed: The world will get to see Timothée Chalamet ride a sandworm: The second installment of the sci-fi epic and global box office hit has officially been greenlit, set to hit the screens in 2023.


Front page of the National Post's October 27 front page

Canadian daily National Post reports on the nomination of Steven Guilbeault, a former Greenpeace activist, as the country's new Environment minister. He had been arrested in 2001 for scaling Toronto's CN Tower to unfurl a banner for Greenpeace, which he left in 2008.


Chinese students now required to learn to think like Xi Jinping

"Xi Jinping Thought" ideas on socialism have been spreading across the country since 2017. But now, Beijing is going one step further by making them part of the curriculum, from the elementary level all the way up to university, reports Maximilian Kalkhof in German daily Die Welt.

🇨🇳 It's important to strengthen the "determination to listen to and follow the party." Also, teaching materials should "cultivate patriotic feelings." So say the new guidelines issued by the Chinese Ministry of Education. The goal is to help Chinese students develop more "Marxist beliefs," and for that, the government wants its national curriculum to include "Xi Jinping Thought," the ideas, namely, of China's current leader. Behind this word jam is a plan to consolidate the power of the nation, the party and Xi himself.

📚 Starting in September, the country's 300 million students have had to study the doctrine, from elementary school into university. And in some cities, even that doesn't seem to be enough. Shanghai announced that its students from third to fifth grade would only take final exams in mathematics and Chinese, de facto deleting English as an examination subject. Beijing, in the meantime, announced that it would ban the use of unauthorized foreign textbooks in elementary and middle schools.

⚠️ But how does a country that enchants its youth with socialist ideology and personality cults rise to become a world power? Isn't giving up English as a global language the quickest way into isolation? The educational reform comes at a time when Beijing is brutally disciplining many areas of public life, from tech giants to the entertainment industry. It has made it difficult for Chinese technology companies to go public abroad, and some media have reported that a blanket ban on IPOs in the United States is on the cards in the next few years.

➡️


"I'm a footballer and I'm gay."

— Australian soccer player Josh Cavallo said in a video accompanying a tweet in which he revealed his homosexuality, becoming the first top-flight male professional player in the world to do so. The 21-year-old said he was tired of living "this double life" and hoped his decision to come out would help other "players living in silence."


Why this Sudan coup d'état is different

Three days since the military coup was set in motion in Sudan, the situation on the ground continues to be fluid. Reuters reports this morning that workers at the state petroleum company Sudapet are joining a nationwide civil disobedience movement called by trade unions in response to the generals' overthrow of the government. Doctors have also announced a strike.

Generals in suits At the same time, the military appears firmly in control, with deposed Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok allowed to return home today after being held by the coup leaders. How did we get here? That's the question that David E. Kiwuwa, a professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham, takes on in The Conversation:

"Since the revolution that deposed Omar el-Bashir in 2019, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

Economy as alibi For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council. This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy.

True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19. Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse."

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471 million euros

Rome's Casino di Villa Boncompagni Ludovisi, better known as Villa Aurora, will be put up for auction in January for 471 million euros ($547 million). The over-the-top price tag is thanks to the villa having the only known ceiling painting by Renaissance master Caravaggio.

✍️ Newsletter by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Who wants to start the bidding on the Caravaggio villa? Otherwise, let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world!!

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