Circles Robinson Online

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Location: Havana, Cuba

is a blog to give a fresh angle on a fascinating and beautiful Caribbean Island country that, despite being relatively small and with only 11 million people, has been a major player in American and world politics for a half century. I also suggest you try

Monday, January 23, 2023

Year End Thoughts for Nicaragua and Cuba

The remedy they’ve always sought is to take advantage of geopolitical conflicts and allow themselves to be used for limited life support.

By Circles Robinson

HAVANA TIMES – The year 2022, as was foreseeable, has been a year of goodbyes.  In Cuba and Nicaragua, the two countries we cover the most, the departing of relatives, friends, partners, colleagues, neighbors, etc. has become a sweet and sour experience.

Sweet because you admire their bravery and wish them well in trying to escape repression or just start over in a new land and help back home. The sour side comes from fear of the dangers involved and watching your country mortgage away its future. The divided families are a tremendous tragedy for a family-oriented country.

Fidel Castro successfully drove a wedge in Cuban families and the Ortega/Murillo regime is doing the same with Nicaraguans. Of all their crimes, this is probably the most widespread and lasting and one they will not be prosecuted for when and if Justice finally comes to pass.

As 2022 ends, one accentuated feeling in these two countries (and there are others like Venezuela) is one of hopelessness for any change away from totalitarian dictatorship. The vast majority of the populations operate in survival mode trying to dodge anything that will color them in the eyes of those watching them, be it at a workplace, neighborhood or community.

In the case of Nicaragua, the dozens of opposition groups with their leaders and main activists in exile appear pretty much dormant. The year 2022 has been a silent one for them.  The independent media rarely covers them because there is little to cover. The news is instead filled with articles on migration and greater repression back home, including the terrible conditions of the political prisoners.

Meanwhile, Ortega/Murillo strengthen their hold on power with no end in sight. International analysts try to convince us – and perhaps themselves – that the regime’s outrageous human rights violations and virulent fury at the US and Europe is causing it to steadily erode. However, after nearly five years of abuses and “weakening”, they seem ever more entrenched. Wishful thinking alone, without any real alternative, has not brought about any changes.

Cuba is once again bleeding profusely. Over many decades, the bleeding has never really stopped, but there have been high and low points and the current year was tops statistically. The chronic shortages of basic food and hygiene products, medicines, and nearly everything else, plus routine blackouts and a near collapse of production in all areas creates a desperate panorama.

The two-tier society of those with FE (family abroad) and those without, is heartbreaking and just the opposite of the dream of a supposedly egalitarian society.  

The Communist Party / Government calls for more sacrifice from the aging Cuban population, in a country that has only known sacrifice for a long time. The promised prosperity always lies around a corner they never reach – and never will if they continue repeating the same errors with minor tweaks and mismanaging the economy with zero accountability to the population.

The remedy they’ve always sought is to take advantage of geopolitical conflicts. Today that means allowing themselves to be used by Russia, China, and Iran in their real and virtual battles with the United States and Europe, in exchange for a lot of talk and limited life support.

I haven’t mentioned the many hundreds of political prisoners in both countries, where just sharing a critical opinion on a social or independent media is tantamount to treason. We’ve become sadly accustomed that being in prison means torture, inhumane treatment, fabricated charges and long sentences for the victims. The mafia tactics of arresting and charging family members of those unjustly in prison or exile is one of the newer cruel elements being employed to provoke stepped-up fear and despair in the Cuban and Nicaraguan populations.

Having lived a long time in both countries and having many friends, family, and colleagues there and in exile, it is profoundly sad not to be able to come up with something hopeful for the coming year. As I said in my comments on Nicaragua in April, 2022, I deeply hope I am proven wrong!

Read more from Circles Robinson’s diary here.

Havana Times Reaches 14 Years Publishing


By Circles Robinson

HAVANA TIMES – Today marks the first day of the 15th year of our publication.  A heck of a lot has happened since we began when I was hoping to make a contribution to the deadpan Cuban media scene for 2 or 3 years with a small non-commercial website.   

One of the principal ideas was to give young people, without any avenue of expression in the monopoly state media, a chance to be heard. We naively didn’t think such an effort would be seen as something subversive that would merit punishing the writers. To the contrary, I even made a successful effort to convince the leadership of the very conservative Cuban Journalists Association that the novel idea of letting non journalists speak their views would strengthen the media and not be a threat in any way. It would boost the level of debate.

Despite not having the possibility to obtain legal status, since freedom of association doesn’t exist in Cuba, in December 2008, two months after we started publishing, we were invited to present the website at the Journalist Association’s headquarters and numerous State media people were invited.  Even though I took it with a grain of salt, it was encouraging to hear the president of the Association stand up and promise his “political” support for our project.

To make a long story short, they liked the idea, but when they started to read the young Cubans opinions about their country and its problems, it wasn’t long before they privately withdrew their support and State Security began to harass and punish some of our writers.

Eight months into HT, while at the same time I kept working at my state job as a translator/revisor for several official Cuban media, I had my residency withdrawn and was given a month to leave the country. No reason was given. I wasn’t ready to leave, but in Cuba if as a foreigner you don’t work for some State or Communist Party institution or business you cannot stay. (There are some exceptions for foreign businesspeople in joint ventures with the government or military, or by marrying a Cuban, but those did not apply in my case.)  I was just an everyday worker for 7.5 years doing my share.

I made the commitment to the people writing and contributing on the website that it would keep going.  During the first 9 months, while I was still in Cuba, we only published in English, which was our original niche audience, but on the contributors request we began also publishing in Spanish as soon as I got situated in another country, which was Nicaragua, where I had lived for 16 years before accepting a job in Havana.

For those of you that follow coverage on Nicaragua on our web publication you are aware the country slid into a cruel dictatorship as the years of the Ortega-Murillo rule (2007-present) advanced. By 2022, under a police state since 2018, independent media and journalists are persecuted, jailed, or forced into exile. Several of those with offices were attacked and confiscated by the government’s police and paramilitary forces. I was just one more of so many who had to leave, or in my case face probable deportation or jail.

However, thanks to friends, family, and reader donations we have never stopped publishing as a daily.  Most of the original contributing Cuban writers have had to leave the country due to State Security harassment or for having work possibilities closed. This, not just for being part of Havana Times but also for activism in other groups trying to advance changes in the stagnated and highly conservative Cuban system.

In recent years we have taken on new writers in Cuba and some of those from the early years are still contributing from within. Likewise, some of those now settled in other countries continue to participate.

By 2012 we began to expand to give coverage on Nicaragua and especially since the civic rebellion of April 2018.  In the current year we also have included coverage on Chile and its interesting and conflictive political process since its civic rebellion in 2019.

One of the distinguishing aspects of HT has been our photo contests which took place during our first 11 years, the last one in 2019.  Then came the pandemic and it isn’t until today that we are announcing our 12th HT Photo Contest.

This was just an overview of what the publication has experienced over 14 years and I want to thank all those people who have been a part of it.  I don’t know how long it’s going to last but with good health and enough support I will continue to publish.

Saturday, August 08, 2020

Havana Times History, Policies & Perspectives (Video)

In this video interview I try to give some answers on a wide range of questions about the Havana Times web publication I edit. These include its origins and history over the first 11 years, the change from an all Cuba site to include Nicaragua, funding, the different sections, policies, and future perspectives.

The interview was recorded in September 2019 and is just being posted. That is why there is no reference to the Covid-19 pandemic. I hope you find it useful to understand our effort.

Much thanks to Ken Alexander, Alixe Cannell and Sheyla Hirshon for making it possible.  

Here is the link to see the interview:

Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Cuban Migrant Crisis on Stage One

By Circles Robinson

HAVANA TIMES (Nov. 24) — On Tuesday the foreign ministers of eleven countries including all of Central America plus Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico and Cuba, meet in the capital of El Salvador to try to find a solution to the Cuban migrant crisis affecting all the nations on the route from Ecuador north to the United States.

Over three thousand Cubans are now stuck in Costa Rica, most in temporary shelters, with transit visas giving them free passage to the Nicaraguan border, but that country has barricaded up its border to the Cubans using riot police and the army to keep them out.

The Cubans, who often sell their homes and possessions to pay people traffickers and make the dangerous trip, land legally in Ecuador, which is the only country on the continent with open doors to the islanders as they do not require a visa. Then they move by land or water through jungles, plains and mountains trying to make the over three thousand mile journey to the United States.

These same Cubans, most refused a visa to visit the US when requested at the US embassy in Havana, will be warmly welcomed by immigration officials under the Cuban Adjustment Act if they reach a US border post. If they don’t make it, that’s their tough luck.

According to the Obama administration, there is no current intention to repeal the Adjustment Act. The law provides Cubans a work permit, financial assistance and a fast track to permanent residency, which no other nationality receives in mass.

The Act, passed in 1966, is a holdover of the Cold War that couples with the more than half-century economic and financial embargo still imposed on the island.

While the strange bedfellows of the Cuban Government and hardline anti-Castro exiles, including presidential hopefull Marco Rubio, want the law repealed or deeply modified, the status quo inertia appears to be considerably stronger going into an election year.

Why Leave Cuba?

The Communist Party’s economic reforms in Cuba have not reached the vast majority of the working population, apart from a small new class of prosperous business owners, some artists and athletes, and a segment of the population working in the tourism industry.

Likewise, increased tourism and self-employment without wholesale markets or import licenses, have only exasperated the shortages of many products faced by consumers.

Many young Cubans, both university educated professionals and those with a lower educational level, aspire to immigrate to another country since their vision of the future in Cuba remains grim.

The island’s aging population is in part due to a large number of Cuban women not wanting to have children until they have a financial situation that will allow them and their partners to have private living quarters and buy basic consumer products. Emigration is seen as the only way they can ever reach these goals and have a family.

The meeting today of the foreign ministers in San Salvador seeks to resolve the situation of the growing number of Cubans on the Costa Rican-Nicaraguan border and also address the general situation of illegal migration in Central America.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Why Cuba’s Elections Draw Little Interest

By Circles Robinson

HAVANA TIMES — This coming February 3, Cuba will hold one of its every-five-year parliamentary elections. It’s a process that goes almost unnoticed and there are reasons why.

Cuban officials often wonder out loud why their parliamentary elections are barely mentioned in the foreign press. I want to share some of the reasons why the process to elect provincial and national legislators draws so little interest on the island and virtually none abroad.

The top reason for the lackluster balloting is that no issues are discussed by the candidates, who are not allowed to campaign.

The candidates are only permitted to post resumes/synopses of their adult life. Voters are asked to cast their ballot for them because they were selected by nomination committees as the most qualified to support the central government’s policies and programs.

Voters have no idea if the candidate has any priorities or new strategies for dealing with the problems and concerns of the citizenry, whether they approve of all government policies 100 percent or if they have any criticisms.

Here’s the punch line: For 612 seats in the National Assembly of People’s Power there are 612 preselected candidates.  For the different Provincial Assemblies of People Power there are a total of 1,269 candidates for 1,269 seats.

Then the National Assembly members will elect a Council of State including the president of the country and several vice presidents.

Voting itself is very easy. Registration is automatic for all citizens 16 or over and over 90 percent of the population routinely vote, which is voluntary, but many believe that those who don’t participate could face future reprisals.

Supporters of the Cuban electoral process often cite the abhorrent million-billion dollar US campaigns as the justification for going to the other extreme and not allowing any campaigning or fundraising in Cuba.
Billboard: Vote for our ideas and our values. 

The concept of a paid politician is absent in Cuba and even the national parliament representatives derive no financial compensation for their civic work, which usually involves two brief three or four day sessions a year.

Since virtually all decisions are made as executive orders by the Council of Ministers, the parliament is relegated to rubber stamping decisions already made and sometimes already implemented.

Virtually all votes are unanimous and any debates among the members are held behind closed doors. Even an abstention is highly rare. This is to say 612 deputies routinely agree with every executive order passed by the Council of Ministers

Seen as a strength by most of the Party leadership, this type of unity doesn’t wash with a growing segment of the Cuban population, especially its youth, who in turn are apathetic to the process – even if they vote so as to not attract attention.

Friday, January 04, 2013

Hugo Chavez Battles for Life in Cuba

By Circles Robinson

HAVANA TIMES — Twenty four days since his last operation to extract cancerous cells, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez “has the same fighting spirit, of strength, with his usual energy and confidence,” said VP Nicolas Maduro upon returning from Cuba to the South American country on Thursday.

HT archives photo of an athletic Chavez.  Photo: Caridad
Out of the public eye since the December 11th operation in Havana, with no recorded messages broadcast, Chavez has suffered a setback in his recovery process “having confronted complications as a result of a serious lung infection,” informed the Venezuelan government on Friday.

“The infection has caused a situation of breathing insufficiency that has required Chavez maintain a strict medical treatment,” added the press release that did not state whether Chavez was using any life support equipment.

No mention has been made by the Venezuelan authorities as to the success of the operation in Chavez’ battle against cancer or the course of action to follow when the respiratory crisis is resolved.

“The government of Venezuela reiterates its confidence in Chavez’ medical team, which maintains an ongoing monitoring of the evolution of the patient and has acted with the utmost thoroughness with each difficulty presented,” said the press statement.

Maduro sharply criticized the Venezuelan opposition for their speculation as to the true state of Chavez’ health calling it a right-wing necrophilia, “when they long for a disastrous announcement.”

He noted that Chavez’s vital signs are stable despite the respiratory problems “that have affected him seriously”.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

HT Editor’s Recent Trip to Cuba

Plus Year End Greetings from HT

By Circles Robinson, editor

HAVANA TIMES — Our publication is now in its fifth year, and every six months I try to go to Havana to meet with the writers, see friends and take in some of the cultural calendar.

In December, HT held its meeting with over 20 contributing writers and photographers in attendance. With everyone bringing something to eat or drink, we always have a light lunch first and then get down to discussing the publication.

One of the main topics this time was fantasizing the possibilities of what we could do when Internet arrives in Cuba for the general population.

Our goal is to operate more as a collective for decision-making; divide up responsibilities for different sections of the site; and institute writer participation in the comments on the different posts as well as on the social networks.

The current Internet situation in Cuba is actually worse for our writers and readers now than it was a couple of years ago. Some of the workplaces that do have access, albeit excruciatingly slow, either block HT on their servers or let their employees know that they’d be wise not to visit it.

E-mail, the main way our articles are distributed, is still difficult for many Cubans. About half of our contributing writers do not even have their own account and must receive correspondence and send their work from someone else’s account. Many still do not have their own computer, which also makes writing difficult.

However despite the limitations, which are a fact of daily life for most Cubans, people continue writing with enthusiasm and contributing to our publication and would be in a position to do so more often if the operating environment were better.

Personally I believe the Internet will arrive when there is a political will for that to happen, something that has clearly not been the case to date. It could happen tomorrow or in five or ten years, but the cost of isolation is growing fast.

I say this because the Cuban government has proven in the past that when it wants to invest in an important field it can do it with or without the US embargo that tries to hinder any advances in the country’s economy.

In the fields of bio-technology and medicine, Cuba has made major investments and recorded major achievements and advances that are recognized worldwide and in the markets, as well as in its cultural industry. If the leadership made it a priority to get the population out of the dark ages in terms of information technology, led by the Internet, I believe they could surely do so.

Many people thought that Internet access was going to improve to some extent, either directly or indirectly, if the fiber optic cable laid from Venezuela to Cuba nearly two years ago actually went into use domestically, even if only at workplaces and educational institutions.

However, from what people know second hand, corrupt officials effectively sabotaged the effort. For some reason, the details of what happened have never been made public, similar to other major scandals uncovered by the Comptroller’s office but hushed up in the official Cuban media.

As editor of the publication, I restated our policy of being a site that, in addition to our news and photo feature coverage, attempts to reflect the diversity of opinions held by Cubans about their country on a wide range of issues and topics.

I reaffirmed that HT is not a political party, opposition group or movement. Instead, we are an online publication where all positions except highly disrespectful, sexist, racist or homophobic comments are
welcome as we try to facilitate a healthy debate on the different issues facing the country.

In concluding I want to wish all of our readers a very Happy New Year for 2013.

Havana Times -

Sunday, September 30, 2012

An Online Reflection of Cuba

Dmitri Prieto interviews Havana Times editor Circles Robinson
Havana coastline photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES — I was sitting with a group of friends (students and teachers) on the grass at the former Institute of Sciences and Nuclear Technologies (today INSTEC), at Havana’s old “Finca de los Molinos” estate.”  This was at the end of 2008.

Out of the blue, one of the guys there remarked, “I’m writing for the website of an American who lives in Cuba.”  I remembered reeling back dumfounded by that contradictory comment:  An American? in Cuba?   The words immediately brought to my mind a conspiratorial backdrop that smacked of geopolitical confrontation, espionage and ideologies hopelessly at odds.

“This American works at ESTI (the Cuban translation agency),” he explained.  “The website began not very long ago.  The guy’s pulling together a team where each person will write a blog.”  That made it both clearer and stranger at the same time.  To cap it off, he added, “The group of bloggers should have the same number of men as women.  A gender balance thing.”

The name Circles Robinson isn’t very well known in Cuba, but he’s the editor of one of the most popular online news sites on Cuba that has hit the web.  It’s the burgeoning Havana Times online publication, administered today from another ALBA country (Nicaragua). These writings are reaching an ever wider audience in Cuba, by on-line connection for the few or by e-mail for the rest.

It is an online medium where diaries of ordinary Cubans coexist with rigorous reports from correspondents with the Cuban-accredited Inter Press Service agency (IPS), as well as with analytical articles and the opinions of recognized experts; it also publishes interviews and excellent photographs.

Sharing a Deeper Look at Cuba
This project of Circles Robinson succeeds, perhaps without intending to, in sharing with non-Cubans an in-depth vision of Cuba: our “Cuba profunda.”  When we walk down the street or look out our windows, we’re usually able to perceive the countless details that served as inspiration for people like Don Fernando, Lezama, Dulce Maria, Oscar Hurtado or Victor Fowler in their multiple inquiries about the experiential spirituality of our country.

Viñales, Pinar del Rio. Photo: Caridad

And what can one say about the symbols that fill our minds?  For me, the exceptional merit of Havana Times is that it allows people from other countries to share in the signs and symbols of current “Cubania” without these being denigrated as “folkloric” or converted into “pasto para turistas” (tourist fodder).

Clearly this is only the personal opinion of a regular contributor to the publication, but I can bear witness: my own perception of “me and my circumstances” in Cuba has been attaining greater clarity since I began writing for the site.  Through writings and photographs, Havana Times graphically reveals a Cuba that is neither hell nor heaven, though certainly a place where it’s possible to live and share one’s life.

It’s an Internet site whose main characters are, for the most part, people “like everybody else”: workers, students, self-employed, professionals, artists and writers.  The Havana Times collective is like a family.  Its subtitle in English, “Open-minded writing from Cuba,” means just that.  Having an open mind is to distance oneself from the same old boring monotones that have been so justly criticized, as well as from tiresome polarized aggressiveness…  It’s an invitation to dialogue in a Cuba where many Cubas fit.

A palpably uncomfortable journalism 

Despite this, the site has never tried to duck controversy.  In a recent polemical post, a leftist blogger (from the group “Bloggers Cuba”) compared Robinson to none less than Charles Dana, the editor of the New York newspaper that published Marx and Marti.  Perhaps it’s an exaggerated praise, but let’s remember too that bloggers suspicious of anyone who promotes questioning and divergent thinking abound on the Cuban web.

Havana Times is a formidable source of information and debate that has covered subjects ranging from a (failed) expedition to the biggest garbage dump in the Cuban capital, to incidents related to a professor who lost his job in a conflict with the administration, the complex problems of transgenic crop cultivation, domestic violence and the life of the imprisoned “Cuban Five” in the United States.

It is a type of journalism that’s uncomfortable for many, generated by people who for the most part are not trained as journalists (and among these “amateurs,” by the way, is the editor himself).

However, speaking of “uncomfortable journalism” – isn’t that what many of us want, for the good of Cuba?  Because of that, Havana Times has started to become a part of Cuban reality, part of the complex processes of change that are now occurring.  It’s one of those X rays machines with which our society — finally! — can look at its insides.

Filled with a desire to unravel the “intrigue” shrouding the subject in question (“Who is Circles Robinson?”), I requested an interview from him, aware of how controversial this would be.  Circles, who is already a friend of many of us, kindly agreed to allow me to share this dialogue in the pages of Espacio Laical, a publication of the Catholic Church of Cuba.  At this point, we’ll ask him to speak in his own words:

Circles Robinson in Cojimar with his grandson Axel Karim.

Who is Circles Robinson and how did you come to live in Cuba?  What was your occupation on the island before starting up Havana Times

Generations ago my family were immigrants to the United States from Rumania and Russia at the beginning of the 20th century, and I was born and raised in Los Angeles.  However the formative experiences of my life took place very distant from that atmosphere: in a small town in the old US West and in Latin America, where I’ve spent most of my adult life.

Since 1982 I’ve lived outside of my country — in Spain, Nicaragua and Cuba — working in everything from agriculture, cooperatives and tourism, to international relations and translation, but with a recurrent link to journalism and small publications.

My interest in Latin America began when I left the US for the first time, in 1972, dodging the military draft during the Vietnam War.   In Colombia, where I lived for two years, I became somewhat aware of the effect of US policy on the continent.  This culminated with my sensing — albeit from a distance — the repercussions of the military coup in Chile against Allende on September 11, 1973.

I also experienced the Colombian people’s warmth, the value they placed on family, their stories and mysteries, and the food.  From all this came my preference for living in Latin America.

Ultimately I won in the draft lottery, a sort of sinister Bingo-like drawing that the US Army employed for recruiting youths into its war machine.   At that time the service was obligatory, but some of the men would never have to serve due to their numbers in the lottery being too high.   I was one of them, so I could return to the United States, which I did in 1974, without having to wait for the amnesty given by Carter in 1977.

I went to live in a small town, Bisbee, Arizona, previously a copper mining town on the Mexican border.  There I worked for the local radio station, published a newspaper, learned a little something about typography and managed a small food cooperative.   Local political activism (and some degree of solidarity with the FMLN in El Salvador and the FSLN in Nicaragua) characterized my years in this town as part of a group that sought a “better world,” though on a smaller scale.

After leaving the US permanently in 1982, I first lived to the south of Granada, Spain, working in agriculture and participating in a small cooperative.

At the end of ‘84, in the face of threats by recently re-elected president Ronald Reagan to invade Nicaragua, I decided to contribute my grain of sand working in coffee plantations in that country, also as a way to understand the Nicaraguan Revolution.  I picked coffee with a large brigade of “nica” teachers and another smaller contingent from a Nicaraguan Christian base community.

Circles, kneeling, when he managed the Bisbee, Arizona Food Co-op in 1976.

After 17 years in Nicaragua, experiencing the revolution and its subsequent debacle (1990), I went to live in Cuba at the end of 2001.  I was hired by the Prensa Latina news agency as a translator/reviser of their English service.  From the beginning I established lots of contacts with the journalists and I concerned myself with trying to make the materials that I revised communicate a little more, a little better, to the readers abroad.

Along with my wife, daughter and grandson, I lived in Tarara (on the far eastside of Havana) because this was where PL offered housing for its technicians at that time.  It was a beautiful place right off the beach, but it was also far from the city and that meant hours of daily waiting for buses or hitchhiking.

At that time my wife worked as a volunteer for two “Transformation Workshops” (Spanish: Talleres de Transformacion) in the Havana neighborhoods of Atares and El Canal.   My daughter studied for a year at the National Art School (ENA) before beginning her studies (paid for by us) at the faculty of Audiovisual
Media at the Superior Institute of Art (ISA).   My little grandson began his first daycare center once he learned how to walk, a month after arriving in Cuba.  As a result of all this, I had the opportunity to become aware of Cuban life from several perspectives.

In mid-2004 I accepted an offer to work in the same capacity for other Cuban online media, but from a new office called On-line Translation based out of the national translation/interpretation office (ESTI).  My family’s housing situation was decisive in that decision.   As such, we moved into an apartment recently vacated by another foreign translator.  It was located in Miramar near the Karl Marx Theater, and half a block from my daughter’s university campus.

At ESTI, given our involvement with the Cuban press, the small staff that worked for On-line Translation formed a chapter of the “Cuban Journalists Association” (UPEC).   I also began to write a personal blog at the end of 2005, partly in response to a suggestion from UPEC to its members.

In the following years I participated in the training of translators and webmasters on how to improve their pages in English.  I drafted a report and presented it in meetings convened by the PCC for the staffs of digital media organizations in different provinces.  As a member of UPEC and representing our chapter, I began to participate in meetings that were convened annually for journalists of the written press.

Discussions around the deficiencies in the content and scope of the Cuban press were constant among my close colleagues.  In 2007 an internal directive on the media was issued from the Politburo of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC).  Among other things it spoke of the need to reflect the reality of the country in news reporting – something I found highly encouraging and motivating.

I participated as a full delegate (with voting rights) in the UPEC Congress in July 2008.  The topic of how to improve the press was raised there by numbers of people from the media, particularly the youth. 
Nonetheless the discussions failed to produce any concrete changes, and after leaving the conference we returned to the same old thing, the same static routine – something that created only frustration for me.

Havana sunrise. Photo: Caridad

How was Havana Times created?   

A little later, I decided to begin a webpage as my contribution to putting into practice the type of media that I thought — and still think — should exist for the national public and for foreign readers interested in Cuba.  It was more than clear to me that the Cuban media utterly failed to reflect the country’s daily life – in the streets, on the job and in homes.  Problems were practically absent, as were the rich diversity of opinions on any issue.

I felt that my personal blog had reached its end, and I wanted to do something with more reach and involving more people.

Our motto in English “Open-minded writing from Cuba” means “Cuba sin prejuicios” in Spanish. With so many media sources demonizing everything that has to do with the Cuban Revolution and its leaders on the one hand, and the monologue of the official Cuban media with its message that “everything’s almost perfect in Cuba and the rest of the world is evil,” on the other, there was a great need for a media that didn’t weigh in from either of those extremes.

I already had several experiences in the field of publishing.   I had published a biweekly newspaper in the town where I lived in Arizona and years later I published a monthly magazine in English for the main farmer’s organization of Nicaragua.   It was Nicaragua from a campesino perspective.

But HT was not only my idea: two other people — a Cuban and an African-American — have been indispensable parts of the creation and continuation of the project from the beginning.

I owe a great deal of thanks to my family for the support that I’ve received in financing the project.   I’ve always thought that self-financing would be the sole way to carry out the effort without making it vulnerable to criticisms of being directly or indirectly sustained by the omnipresent “enemy.” Fortunately, the costs of the initiative are modest.   That’s one of the big advantages of online work.

Over a three month period we created the design, sought our initial writers and began accumulating photos.   We received HT’s banner photo just a few days before going online.  Start-up wasn’t easy because many of the people we approached were working for government entities or studying; and writing a for non-official Internet press entity isn’t looked upon very well by many supervisors, professors and party functionaries.

We opted for a simple but attractive design, with lots of photos – that’s one of the strengths of HT.   In the beginning the publication only came out in English, focusing on non-Spanish-speaking readers interested in Cuba, be it for tourism, study or whatever.   This was consistent with my job as a foreign technician working for the online English language media in Cuba.

Among the goals was to present different situations experienced in the country and the wide diversity of opinions, showing the beauty and achievements as well as the blemishes and real problems.   In short, we were aiming to show the country in the flesh, a country like others but different at the same time.

We launched into cyberspace in mid-October of 2008, and I took on the challenge of working my regular day job with ESTI and publishing HT in my free time.  It was an exhausting pace involving 14-16 hour days sitting in front of the computer.   Also, though we had planned to update the page once or twice a week, the site quickly evolved into a daily online publication due to the quantity of material we received and the speed made possible by technology.

Two months after its start-up we officially presented the site at the UPEC headquarters before the directors of that organization and representatives of a number of Cuban media.

Tell us how your previous experiences influenced the concept and style of your new online magazine?   

There were many Cubans who experienced the collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist camp first hand while studying or undergoing training in those countries.   I myself didn’t experience Eastern Europe first hand, but I did witness the painful collapse of the revolution in Nicaragua.  It was like seeing the closing of a great window of opportunity — for creativity and for learning from other efforts, for improving — all shut in a single motion.  I still feel the pain even today.

For me the Nicaraguan Revolution was like Cuba’s, another David vs. Goliath story with great freshness and hope, but which gradually began to extinguish.

The economic blockade that Nicaragua suffered, like Cuba, and the war (also sponsored by the US) played a significant role.   However for me the reversal was due to the loss of revolutionary ethics, self-adulation by the senior leadership, a triumphalist monologue, the lack of controls and economic mismanagement, the lack of substantive participation by the people in decision making, plus the gradual distancing of the leadership from the base and their believing themselves to be eternally in power, all of which led to the crushing electoral debacle of February 25, 1990.

After the hurricanes. Photo: Caridad

After that disaster I stayed, working seven more years for the campesino organization UNAG, the counterpart to Cuba’s ANAP and which included the cooperative movement.  During that time I, like many other people, tried to figure out what had happened, still dreaming of another chance to transform the world into something different…where people, social justice, collective well-being and nature were more important than capital, and where people would reflect on their errors instead of repeating them.

Going to Cuba a decade later was an opportunity for me to see how it might have been if Nicaragua’s revolution has lasted 40 years instead of just 10… what would have been its achievements, its strengths as well as its problems and weak points?  Nicaragua was not a copy of Cuba but it was influenced by its big brother in many aspects.  

By living in Cuba I realized how much the Nicaraguan Revolution meant to Cubans at a personal level, for each individual.  What had happened was very painful for them too.

With respect to the media, I remember that Salman Rushdie in his book on Nicaragua (The Jaguar Smile) wrote that the Sandinista party’s newspaper (Barricada) was the worst he’d ever seen.

At that time — finding myself in the middle of the war and accepting the leaders’ arguments concerning the need to restrict information and criticism for the sake of unity — I didn’t agree with anything Rushdie said.  Later I did come to concur with him.  It was in fact a terrible newspaper that minimized the capacity of people to assess information and to reach their own conclusions.

In Cuba I found a fascinating country with major achievements as a society but one with enormous cumulative problems.   The investment that had been made over half a century to promote culture was evident, and being in the capital I was able to enjoy the fruits of those advances.

Collectively, the press, radio and TV were something altogether different though.  It was a return to the Barricada.  What I found in the Cuban media was that same monologue: asserting possession of the absolute truth while omitting information, misusing statistics and claiming a false unity, not to mention the constant stream of triumphalism.   In short, what current president Raul Castro describes as “the boring press.”

We wanted to do something different with HT, something where ordinary people had a voice, not only leaders and recognized intellectuals.   We also intended to include the work of experienced journalists and photographers along with reports and commentaries.

The goal has been to reflect the range of realities and challenges faced in the country.  Hence, our “diaries” section was born.  In this section are the personal logs of our bloggers, who come from a wide variety of fields and have an equally broad range of opinions and beliefs/ideologies.

How is Havana Times different from other similar media?  And what do they share?   

I don’t think there’s really anything similar with the great majority of the young writers living in Cuba.  Perhaps the closest things in format are Cubaencuentro and Diario de Cuba.    Although technically we’re just one more of the thousand-plus websites written about Cuba, we opted from the beginning for a format that was more like an online newspaper, and this has worked for us.

At one single site we have the voices of 15 people writing their blogs in the first person; in addition there are reports, commentaries and photo features by veterans as well as novices to the trade.   We also reproduce materials from the IPS news agency, which has racked up more than 30 years of reporting from Cuba.

Photo by Caridad.

With respect to the content, I believe that several elements distinguish us: the diversity of opinions and styles, ranging from intellectual analyses to very simple and direct styles; our not being rigid extremists and not being the mouthpiece of any party, organization, institution or movement.  

We cover and comment on issues concerning the economy as well as sports, culture etc.  It’s simply a publication that looks for ways to elevate the knowledge about and interest in Cuba and attempts to be accessible to a board spectrum of national and foreign readers.

Is there any contradiction between your previous occupations and the creation of this new information medium?  Has your appreciation of the situation on the island changed since starting Havana Times?   

On the contrary, having translated and revised for the Cuban media for seven years gave me many ideas about how journalism here could move forward over time.  Translating and revising journalistic materials can be extremely boring when the materials are of little interest, repetitive, missing information and are oblivious to what the most casual observer can see all around.  But it also gives you a lot to think about in terms of how you would write, including your topics and style.

Moreover, I had already put out other publications and ran two radio programs without being a certified professional.  To succeed with HT, I drew on all my experiences.  One thing I’ve learned how to do, and that I love to do, is involve more and more people, almost creating a family, and this is how it feels with the Havana Times group.   We even have readers who also feel like they’re part of the project – and they are.

My appreciation of the situation concerning the Cuban media hasn’t changed.   There have been timid efforts to present aspects of the different realities of the country and its people.  There’s been some talk about certain problems, but it’s all been well below what’s required.   Likewise, absent are focuses and opinions that diverge from official policies.  They’re either nonexistent or so shy that they don’t come to mean real change.   Real debate remains absent.

Furthermore, the lack of investigative journalism has done a great deal of harm to the country.  I’m sure that if this type of journalism had been encouraged, rather than repressed, some of the major cases of corruption would have come to light much, much earlier.  This lack of investigative reporting makes business executives and authorities feel like they’re on a throne, unquestionable and untouchable!

Who make up Havana Times?  
Havana Times is a fluctuating number of 20-25 people that include writers, translators, the webmaster and me – the editor.   The overwhelming majority of the group are Cubans who live on the island.  They’re of all ages, though most are between 30 and 45.  However we also have a couple of Cuban writers who live abroad, in addition to three US citizens, all of whom possess depths of experience after having lived in Latin America and worked for governments in countries that have undergone revolutions.

Photo: Caridad

One of the things that I insist on with those who write their diaries is the importance of their own voice, their perceptions, their experiences.   This “I” exists in Havana Times, and that’s of interest to the readers.  When we meet as a group every six months, we can appreciate the diversity of people who make up the collective. 
The mixture of professions, jobs, abilities, backgrounds, gender, race, community activism experience and beliefs, etc. is evident.   A few guests always show up at these meetings and even to them this diversity is palpable.

The writing also demonstrates this.   There are people who write about personal and practical problems, while others go into philosophical matters; some deal with their neighborhoods, others touch on economic and political questions that the country is facing; then too, there are those who express concerns about social coexistence, and a few like to relate anecdotes or tackle the international terrain, etc.  We only exclude those positions that use insults instead of arguments to debate.

The topics that people choose to write about come from each of them as individuals.   I sometimes suggest an issue for an article or a photo feature, but this doesn’t make up more than five percent of the materials we publish.

Tell us about how the project has developed, how it has taken stands, or the surprises, conflicts and joy it has generated.   

Three big changes happened the first year.   The first one was our losing the support of the UPEC leadership, which was initially offered publically to Havana Times.  Ultimately, after seeing the publication in practice over half a year, they couldn’t accept it as an independent and critical medium, one in which there were young non-journalists expressing themselves about their situations, their realities so distinct from the picture painted by the official media.

The second change was when my contract wasn’t renewed in June 2009.  I’m convinced this action had its roots in an ethical conflict with my boss, and that Havana Times was not the principal reason.  However, the net result was the loss of my temporary residency and therefore the need for my wife and I to leave the country within 30 days.  I returned to Nicaragua, where I have legal residency.  From there I continued the magazine with visits to Cuba every six months.

However the greatest change for HT was the September 2009 decision to put out a version in Spanish.   This had been a constant request by the bloggers so that they could share their work with other Cubans.
The effect has been remarkable and growing.  

The Cuban readership from the island was less than five percent the first year; now Cuba is in first place position among our Spanish readers, making up 15 percent of them.  Following this are readers from Spain, the US, Mexico and Venezuela.   In English, Cuba is located in fourth place behind the US, Canada and the United Kingdom.   This doesn’t include the numbers of people in Cuba without Internet connections who receive HT by e-mail.

The project has demonstrated slow but steady growth.  We have a modest average of around 2,000 visits to the site daily and 5,000 pages visited.   This is not an insignificant amount for a relatively new publication that specializes in a single country.

Photo: Caridad

We’re building a varied readership, one of differing political perspectives, but what unites the great majority is a healthy interest or love for Cuba.  They feel comfortable with the inclusive variety of opinions that are read in HT, different from what can be found in the hundreds of sites of apologetic cheerleaders or the many others set up by venomous denigrators.

So is it an effort that is primarily for “yumas” (foreigners), or is it also for Cubans?  Why do you think Cubans read Havana Times?  Is there some special contribution and characteristic of Havana Times when it comes to events taking place in Cuba? 

I believe that Havana Times is playing a modest role in the debate on the present and future of the country and also in the analysis of its past.  One of its fresh contributions is including ordinary people with their diaries or personal blogs as a fundamental part of the site.

There are intellectuals who would say that the level of writing is uneven or not at their level, but we’re not seeking to be an academic publication or one only for intellectuals.   We’re cultivating the general public, which includes them if they want, but they’re not the only ones.   I’d also dare say that everyone who is writing for the site has improved their skills, their ability to express themselves and their arguments.

As for the obvious question of language, we began by directing the magazine toward the Anglophone world and to Cubans who understand English, including many overseas.   But now our readership is much more varied and we have increasingly more readers in different countries of Latin America, like Mexico and Venezuela.

One goal has been to remove the surprise factor for people planning to visit Cuba in the future.   We put both the achievements and the problems on the table, providing certain knowledge to the readers so that when they’re in Cuba they can deepen their attempt to understand a complex and varied country.  I would also say that later, many of these people will find the nuanced Cuba that they discovered in the pages of Havana Times.

For internal debate in Cuba, HT is playing a role like several other sites, providing a setting for critical expression that practically doesn’t exist in the official spaces.   Obviously the big obstacle is the very limited Internet access that Cubans have, but we’ve made a beginning and the tendency is one of growth.

Havana Times has been the object of criticism from distinct political positions.  How do you respond to those critics?   

People with completely closed positions who believe themselves the owners of absolute truth — both those of the supposed left and those on the right — are bothered by the site and they have attacked us.

On the US side, on the right, the best example is a businessman from Massachusetts who owns more than 2,000 Internet domains with Cuba, Havana or other related keywords in their names.  These were secured with the idea of promoting his present and future business activities, including sexual tourism.  Since the very beginning he has maintained that I’m a “high-level agent of Cuban State Security” and that we’re “the Cuban government’s response to the famous dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez.”

Photo: Caridad

At the same time, there are completely unquestioning groups of apologists in Cuba and in solidarity groups abroad who take a dim view of us.  Some of them have told me that we are “playing the enemy’s game” because we publish articles exposing the many difficulties and widespread dissatisfaction in the country. 

Some acquaintances and colleagues of this thought have told me that the youth who complain “should leave the country” instead of contributing criticism about the government and its policies.

Is Circles Robinson “before” Havana Times the same person as “after”? 

My appreciation of life has not changed with the experience of HT though I feel a great warmth from the good friendships that have developed through the project.   We have lived on the razor’s edge, ourselves being sharp hard critics but also constructive ones, hoping for understanding from Cuban officials — who can cause problems for our bloggers and even our readers in Cuba — if they don’t come to the understanding that we’re part of the process of positive change within a revolution that started 52 years ago.

I continue to hold onto the dream of being able to publish Havana Times from Cuba, like I did in the beginning.  In that way I would have more contact with those contributing to the site, as well as be in closer touch with the country and even its authorities. 

It might be a crazy idea on my part, but I feel that there are those even in the party who value positively our contribution to the Cuba trying to overcome this stage of immobility, stagnation and deterioration, and replace it with a new era, one of initiative, creativity, widespread participation and progress with solidarity.

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