Thursday, December 17, 2009

How (not) to Help: Some Unsolicited Advice for Uncle Sam

In the past 12 years, since my frist trip to Cuba in the summer of 1997, I've been to the "forbidden isle" perhaps more than 15 times. On every one of those trips I have brought things with me to give to "the Cuban people," friends, acquaintances, and strangers.

I started with two or three boxes of donated medicines and multiple bottles of vitamins and asprins. Luckily, I was illegally renting a room from a Cuban doctor who brought me to the office of the director of his hospital to hand over the goods - so as to eliminate the famed desvio ("detour" or pilfering) of donations. Though, I have since learned that giving donations to such a person was perhaps the worst idea of all!

Still, I have not been discouraged. Since that first trip, I expanded both my repertory and generosity, and have always tried to deliver my donations directly to their intended beneficiary, without using intermediaries. I have brought scores of letters (back and forth). I have brought cash. I have brought all kinds of magazines - Hola!, The New Yorker, Encuentro de la Cultura Cubana, Muscle and Fitness, PC World, Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, and even copies of the dissident publication CubaNet News, etc. (If you're wondering, Hola! was easily in first place with Muscle and Fitness, PC World, and Encuentro competing for second).

I have brought books (and bought many books in Cuba too). I've brought copies of "banned" Cuban novels like Guillermo Cabrera Infante's Tres Tristes Tigres and the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas-Llosa's The War at the End of the World, hard-to-come-by and much-sought-after editions of the Mario Conde detective novels of Leonardo Padura, as well as works by the poet Nicolas Guillen and the novelist and essayist Alejo Carpentier. I have brought copies of the Spanish-language edition of Marifeli Perez-Stable's Cuban National Reconciliation: Task Force on Memory, Truth, and Justice. And I have even brought copies of my own dissertation on self-employment and the underground economy, handing them out to dissident economists, reformist economists, and official diplomats in turn.

I have brought pencils for Cuban school children. I have brought pens for Cuban independent journalists. I have brought a cordless phone and a frying pan. I have brought "tinte" (hair dye) for a self-employed hair stylist and "smuggled in" loads of blank DVDs for a friend who runs a clandestine banco de peliculas (Cuba's answer to Netflix). I have brought playdough and power rangers for another friend's nephew and, of course, a Barbie for his niece.

And though I have never purposely left a cell phone behind (I think you know where I'm going with this), on my last trip I did bring a laptop computer along with a how-to computer manual in Spanish as a gift for another friend's proud Communist (retired) father. I once even brought a "enemy" bottle of Jack Daniel's Tennessee whisky in exchange for an equally "embargoed" bottle of Havana Club Anejo 7 anos rum.

One of my most poingnant gifts was a kid's baseball, glove, and bat set that I once gave to a cabbie. As he dropped me off at the Jose Marti National Library one morning, I asked him if he had a son. When he answered that he did, I pulled the set out of my mochila and handed it to him, asking that he accept it as my tip. I can still remember now almost 10 years later the look of astonishment and gratitude on his face as he took the gift telling me that he had never been able to afford to give his son new toys (remember these were still the worst of the anos duros of the special period).

And on my last trip to Cuba back in May of 2009 I paid a visit to the apartment of Yoani Sanchez and Reinaldo Escobar.  When I had first met and interviewed them the previous July, I had given them a few 2G flash drives to aid them in expanding the blogosfera cubana.  This time I was better prepared and brought copies books on computing and blogging in Spanish, as well as a few of my favorite titles by Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point/El Punto Clave) and the graphic novel about life coming of age during the Iranian Revolution (Perisopolis).  I also gave them a Flip camera - although they reimbursed me for this.

As long as Los Hnos. Castro allow me to visit, I will continue to engage in this sort of citizen solidarityWithout intermediaries

None of my gifts came "From the American People" (the motto of the USAID) or the U.S. Department of State, and none of them were delivered to the Cuban government.  Just as I would not want to hand over my gifts to the Cuban government allowing it the right to determine how they are used and who benefits from them, neither would I accept them from the U.S. government to deliver to whom they determine can best use them or for what purpose.

All this brings me back to the title of this post, "How (not) to Help," and my unsolicited advice for the U.S. government and its plans for future "public diplomacy." 

Don't send contractors into Cuba armed with cell phones and laptops.  Instead, end the travel ban and let the real "American people" engage in authentic "people-to-people" contacts and "public diplomacy."

Our current approach only succeeds in (1) endangering the contractors themselves, (2) making it exceedingly easy for the Cuban government to win the PR game against us by shouting "CIA" and "enemy subversion," (3) allowing them to easily taint and disqualify anyone who has received this "help" as "lackeys" doing the bidding of "empire," (4) underming any trust in a "new approach" from the Obama administration, and (5) making us look like hypocrites and the "Cuban 5," the five Cuban agents who are serving time in U.S. federal prison for spying on Cuban-American groups in the U.S., look strikingly like what the Cuban government constantly celebrates them as - "prisoners of empire" and "heroes of the fatherland."  Now we have our own prisoner to rally around - except that the kindly State Department has already denied that he works for the U.S. government at all - poor slob!

Furthermorer, Havana has already sloopily attempted to label Sanchez and her growing blogger crew as a foreign media construction, working at the behest of Cuba's enemies, and doing it all for the Yankee Dollar. Now imagine if the Cuban government came out with a video (real or photoshoped) showing this contractor handing over our "gifts" to Sanchez.  The "Phenomenon Yoani" would quickly start looking like what the Cuban government likes to call it: "La Operacion Yoani."

From having met her, I'm confident that Sanchez is much smarter than to fall for this old trap. However, with these policies, one could not be blamed for wondering if Castro does not indeed still have an ally somewhere in the State Department!

Granted, Havana looks mightily weak and paraniod when it screams about enemy infiltration of laptops and cell phones (que peligro!) - most countries and people would welcome such donations (where's mine?) as part of an aid package (in fact that's a damn good idea, along with the fiber-optic cable). However, sometimes paranoia can be an objective reality, especially when the laptops and cellphones in question come from a country whose stated policy (with a carrot or a stick) is still regime change.

If you want background on the recent arrest of the State Department contractor in Havana for handing out cell phones and laptops among other hifi/wifi items, the go to guys are Phil Peters at The Cuban Triangle, Tracey Eaton at Along the Malecon, and the gang over at The Havana Note.

As is my custom, let me leave you with three bits of wise advice from two of my favorite Cubans - Yoani Sanchez and Dagoberto Valdes.

From the "How to Help" section of Genereacion Y (English and Spanish):

How can I help the alternative blogosphere in Cuba? It’s a request to citizens of the whole world and rests on the solidarity among people that has nothing to do with political stripes or ideological preferences.
  • Link to the blogs and place them on the search engines or platforms where they can have greater visibility. Each person who reads us, protects us, so we need to strengthen the shield formed by readers and commentators.
  • Lend a hand in the administration of blogs, especially to those bloggers who have very limited access to the Internet. For this you only need the will to collaborate, a minimal understanding of Wordpress or and the honesty to not add or change any content that has been authorized by the author of the site.
  • Avoid the cult of personality of a single emblematic blogger and take the alternative blogosphere as a phenomenon in which a growing number of Cubans are participating. Don’t repeat in the virtual world the adoration of individuals that does so much damage in the real world.
  • Mobile phones and economic aid to open and maintain accounts. I have been in the position where I frequently post by sending text messages to people outside Cuba who later put my texts on the net. So providing a blogger a cell phone is a way to open a parallel path to the traditional Internet access.
  • Laptops or any kind of accessory to build a PC. My experience tells me that an old laptop brought to the island and given to a possible blogger can be the spark for the emergence of a new opinion. Look in your office or your house for everything that’s been scrapped but that might be useful for assembling a computer, and add it to your suitcase when you are vacationing in Cuba. And please, don’t even think of sending it by mail.
  • Digital cameras and video recorders, especially the little Flip camcorder that lets us discretely film situations in our everyday lives.
  • Books about citizen journalism, manuals and programs and every kind of documentation that can help us to better understand the blogger phenomenon.
The path for channeling this aid is directly to each blogger. Write a message to the email that appears in the blogs published from within Cuba—see the list of links in my sidebar—and organize, without intermediaries, this type of solidarity. The slogan of this help movement could well be: “Oxygen for the Cuban blogosphere!”
And here is what Sanchez told me when I asked her about the "Finaciamiento" behind her blog (see here for full text in Spanish and a link to the YouTube video):

That’s a very good question because it is a question we want to respond to with the utmost transparency. One of our policies is to accept financing neither from governments, nor from political parties, nor from foreign political groups. This does not mean that we do not accept help. Friends and supporters come to Cuba and give us a memory flash or other supplies. They buy us an internet card or make a donation to our cause. But that’s another kind of thing, something at a personal, citizen level. But we don’t want anything, first, that links us to any foreign government, and above all that would influence our editorial line. We don’t want our editorial line to be dictated by others based on who finances the magazine. We reject that.

In the particular case of Reinaldo and I, we have our parallel profession that is at the same time an underground profession. We have survived now for more than 12 years by giving Spanish classes to tourists and showing them Havana. That’s a very unstable profession, but it affords us economic autonomy – and economic autonomy is connected to political and ideological autonomy. Now that my blog has become fairly well-known, I have begun to collaborate with a number of foreign magazines who pay me. That has also allowed me to purchase more hours if internet time. So, our autonomy is at all levels. It is autonomy from the Cuban government and from any foreign institution. And that gives us great tranquility and freedom when it’s time to write.
Finally, Dagoberto Valdes is the founder and former director of the famed independent magazine Vitral and the current director of the web-site Convivencia (both run out of Pinar del Rio). In January, 2007, just before he and his editorial staff were separated from Vitral by the new Catholic Bishop of Pinar del Rio, I paid him a visit. Here is how I describe Valdes and that visit in my book, Cuba: A Global Studies Handbook:

While visiting Vitral’s headquarters in Pinar del Río, I found Valdés to be a wise and good humored survivor driven by a progressive Christian faith and a strong sense of Cuban nationalism – in the tradition of Cuba’s 19th century patriot, Father Félix Varela, who fought for Cuba’s independence from Spain. Valdés is often quite critical of the Cuban government, but his criticisms betray no trace of hatred; rather, they issue from tolerance and hope – two values sorely lacking in Cuban circles on both sides of the Straits of Florida.

Valdés has also been uniquely consistent in his opposition to U.S. policies like the embargo and travel restrictions that only serve to further insulate Cubans from the free flow of ideas while strengthening the government’s control over them. In fact, when chief U.S. diplomat Joseph Sullivan visited Vitral back in 1995, Valdés had to exercise caution and preserve his hard-won independence. Clearly impressed, Sullivan declared: “This is just the kind of independent voice that the U.S. should support. What we can do to help?” To which Valdés replied, “If you really want to help us, I ask you not to help at all.”


  1. I also took MANY things to Cuba (most requested ahead of time through a friend)... including... yes, believe it, a RAISED TOILET SEAT WITH HANDLES for someone's elderly mother. Much appreciated.

    But generally I like to bring things for kids, and among the few things I had corners in my duffle for (did I mention the two 5-person tents?), I stuck in a baseball. Cost me maybe a buck.

    My Canadian friend working there gave it to a colleague for his son. She said he nearly started shaking, and DID start crying. He immediately called his wife, and then called home continually to find out if his son was home from school. From that point on he just walked around the office, with the ball in hand, unable to settle to his work. As soon as the boy arrived home, the man left work to deliver the baseball.

    Man, did I wish I'd brought a mitt! (I did bring 10 cloth (parachute fabric) kites with string of course... those were a hit as well.)

  2. Your wife was right, mate. These postings are too long. People just won't read the almost 2,500 words that this once consists of. Sorry, and I write as a former university don myself, but anything over 1,000 words is a waste these days.

    OK, Fifty years after the revolution and bloody Hola is the magazine of choice? I think that I need to go and boil my head... Why not take Newsweek in Spanish? I am sure that it must be available in the USA.

    Software... You do know that Mexico is a world centre for pirate software don't you? It sells on the streets for U.S.$5.00 a disk and whatever you want is available. Let me know if you want something sending up. Cuba is a great fan of pirateware as it helps save money and do over the man at the same time.

  3. Good analysis in your thesis. I had read about and experienced some of that you talked about in my several trips to Cuba, but I enjoyed your putting it all together.

  4. I sent to one of those bloggers a couple cameras: A Flip and a Sony, plus some other eGizmos (USB sticks, memory cards, reader/writers, etc) And I wanted to send some used laptops as well, but with the contractor incident, my mulas got scared.
    What I'm trying to say is: I'm helping those guys too.
    But I don't agreed with you: The aproach of Dagoberto Valdés is, as you said "19th century", and today, Sir, it's the 21st one.
    To fight, wichever way they choose, money's fundamental, equipment and... Why no? A powerful friend: U.S.A.
    Look at Cuba, sucking Venezuela wealth, as before did to the russians. So for the commies it's OK get monies from their friends.
    But bloggers are not allowed 'cause some Castro sympatizers will acused them of being CIA agents... and for some 19th Century inspired and weird antiamerican feeling.
    That mentality has to change. We cubans are not in conditions to be picky beggars.

  5. Can someone explain the benefit of a Flip camera? Surely a standard digital still camera would be better since almost all of them can be used to shoot video. I don't know how cheap the Flips are in the USA but looking at the prices in Britain I think that they are overpriced compared to say a nice Sony still camera with video as well.

  6. @Exile: Flips are a no-brainer. They are the "automatic transmission" of the camera world.