Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Why Run for Roots? Part 3

Run for Roots is a new initiative that embodies the Roots of Hope mission by seeking to draw attention and collect funds in support of Cuban youth. The participants who will be running the Miami Half Marathon in January 2012 are motivated to do so by the desire to be agents of change and help empower youth on the island through innovative programs such Roots of Hope as Cells 4 Cuba and our Family Reunification Program. To learn more about Run for Roots, visit our website. To donate, visit our Crowdrise page.

Why I run

By Lolita Sosa

I've very often stood in front of a mirror, clad in shorts and a shirt, wondering why.
Why am I pushing myself so hard?
Why run more than what my typical workout requires?
Why spend hours with my feet slapping the road, sweat gathering in my curly hair, and mind begging for rest?

To be completely honest, I began to run for myself. I have been born and bred in a surrounding that praises tidiness and conventionalism. Growing up, I was told: "Yes, you can do sports. But you're a girl. And girls aren't really good at them. Boys are. And so you'll be competing with them always." 

My decision to begin long-distance running was a decision based on defiance. I have always refused to believe that worth was tied to body types, looks, gender, or others' judgments on these. For me, worth has always been tied to drive, achievement, and compassion. I felt that running was the ultimate solitary way to hone these traits and express their importance to myself.

I needed drive to race against my self, my mind, and my limitations. Achievement would depend on the constraints I placed upon myself, and my decisions on whether or not to follow them. Self-compassion could be tested and refined through awareness of my body's needs, and acceptance of the red, puffy, sweaty, tired and aching body that would face me in the mirror post-run.

Running was my freedom.

When asked to run with the Roots, I was extremely hesitant. I had no idea how to connect such a personal activity to Roots of Hope's goals. Running was personal, and I wanted it to remain personal. The idea of family or friends becoming involved seemed unnecessary.

As I was considering it, I spoke to Roots of Hope members that I was close to. I was given different opinions, but this post by Carmen Pelaez moved me. Though I had already committed myself to running the ING Half, Laura Pollan's passing gave me a new perspective.

While running, the only constraint that exists is the self's motivation. In order to push oneself through the difficult and harrowing miles, an extreme determination and worthwhile goal must be pursued. These attributes have existed in the Cuban dissidence for a long time; the dissidents are unrelenting and full of passion for their cause. I chose to run for them, learning from them, and representing them by having Laura's name on my tag during the ING.

It is with this same passion and vigor that I believe we continue our Roots of Hope view of empowering youth in Cuba. Despite the pitfalls, we always pick ourselves back up and attempt to find a practical route in helping our counterparts on the island. We are constantly innovating and, while it is cell phones and USB's for now, our actions will  reflect the realities on the island as they change. What running demands in strength and willpower has been the same as what our approach to Cuba has demanded.

Now, as I explain my crazy long-distance running hobby to others, I speak of Cuba. Both Cuba and running are part of who I am; there was no reason that they should have been separate.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Why Run for Roots? Part 2

Run for Roots is a new initiative that embodies the Roots of Hope mission by seeking to draw attention and collect funds in support of Cuban youth. The participants who will be running the Miami Half Marathon in January 2012 are motivated to do so by the desire to be agents of change and help empower youth on the island through innovative programs such Roots of Hope as Cells 4 Cuba and our Family Reunification Program. To learn more about Run for Roots, visit our website. To donate, visit our Crowdrise page.


By Carmen Pelaez

The first time we ran as the RUN FOR ROOTS group, I pretty much felt the same as every other road race at the start. Then half way into the first mile, I started thinking about Cuba. And I realized that I had never thought about Cuba while running in forward motion. Yes, I had thought about Cuba’s tomorrows and yestedays many times-but something about one foot in front of another, about actually physically moving through space in a forward motion was liberating and had me at the point of tears. Just as I could barely feel the street beneath my feet, I passed in front of the New York Historical society which was undergoing a renovation. The banners that served as cover for the construction were covered in portraits of important New Yorkers. I stopped in my tracks when I saw the thoughtful face of Felix Varela.

He looked weary but determined. His expression was very similar to the expression I have seen a pass on most of our dissidents faces and felt deep in my own heart when it comes to all things Cuba. It’s kind of amazing how many times our little island has had to fight for its freedom with only small moments of rest in between. And it occurred to me that working for a civil society in Cuba is very much like long distance running. More often than not the conversation is frustrating, the work exhausting with only a few moments of brilliant inspiration to keep you going when you think you don’t have anything else left in the tank. That’s when I knew that running the Miami Half Marathon would be a very poetic and appropriate way to raise money for the ROOTS OF HOPE programs that I am so proud to support.

I started my training soon after Laura Pollan died and decided to run the race in her honor. I had hoped to be tireless and fierce and post my best half marathon time ever. But as usual, inspiration was fleeting. My training has been exhausting and I have been sick, cold and feeling utterly at a loss for my lack of strength and stamina. I haven’t been able to fundraise a lot of and it all just started to feel like a futile effort.

Then this past week I was lucky enough to ask Yoani Sanchez a question on a Columbia University produced internet radio program moderated by Mirta Ojito. I asked how we could support Cuban youth in a direct and daily way, in the same vein that her activism continually inspires us. Without pause she answered ‘Information.’ She said the best we could do to support the Cuban populous is by giving them ways to access information. That we needed to continue the work that ROOTS OF HOPE does as far as giving away cell phones and flash drives to Cubans so that they can educate themselves through technology and become a part of the world at large. Suddenly every step I ran in training, every crunch, every ache had a purpose, reminding me that even though at times the distance may seem insurmountable, every run has an end. The important things is to keep moving.

So, on January 29th, 2012 I will be running the ING Miami Half Marathon. As I work through the city that has given my family and so many other Cubans asylum I will meditate on how our dissidents have kept the hopes for a free and civil Cuban society moving forward. I will let their hope fuel mine and I will run with a full heart and my eyes fixed firmly on the future of our much oppressed but splendidly resilient Cuba.

Carmen Pelaez is a New York based actor, playwright, and author. Her professional page can be seen here.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Why Run for Roots? Part 1

Run for Roots is a new initiative that embodies the Roots of Hope mission by seeking to draw attention and collect funds in support of Cuban youth. The participants who will be running the Miami Half Marathon in January 2012 are motivated to do so by the desire to be agents of change and help empower youth on the island through innovative programs such Roots of Hope as Cells 4 Cuba and our Family Reunification Program. To learn more about Run for Roots, visit our website. To donate, visit our Crowdrise page.

Why I'm running

By Miraisy Rodriguez

In all honesty, I'm running because my fellow Roots won't let me quit. That's how I got started too.

Being as involved as I am with Roots of Hope, Inc., it was impossible for me to have missed the excited whispers of a Run for Roots initiative. Less than six months after I first heard the idea, it had become much more than a whisper, and before I knew it I was getting emails and Facebook posts about joining the group and training for the ING Half Marathon.

The I, N...what?! 13.1 miles?! The most I'd ever jogged in my life was 3 miles and that was over two years ago when I was a college student with time on my hands. Now I'm in law school and working and I have a dog and a baby niece!

To my great surprise when I mentioned the idea to my sister, someone who attends quite a bit of Miami Root events, she was ecstatic. Not only did she encourage me to do it, she started training with me! If a young woman with a new born baby could do it...I could too. She wasn't the only Root that jumped on the idea. Many more suddenly started emailing and texting me until I found myself emailing and texting yet more people, asking them to join us.

Sure, our core Miami team isn't as large as the day we first started, but no one has left without talking to someone else on the team and seriously considering whether they should stay. For me, that "should I leave?" talk happened very recently.

A couple of Roots were asking me to confirm the location of the weekly group practice when I decided to call one of them back (the running Guru of the Miami Roots) and tell her I was thinking of quitting. Her response: "No. Try something new... Gatorade instead of water to hydrate. You can't quit. Where's practice?"

So practice goes on, and I continue training, slowly but surely, because my Roots won't let me quit.

Because whether we're running to raise money for Roots of Hope, Inc. or because we're thinking of a friend on that island not so far way, or because we just like running and this is as good a cause as any, one thing's for sure: training together has brought us closer together.

And no one likes to see someone close to them leave.

Miraisy Rodriguez was born in Santa Clara, but raised in Miami. She is a second year law student who likes to blog on her free time and volunteers with the Miami Roots’ Network. Her personal blog may be found at

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Seeds of Change - Loudspeakers for Cuban Voices (Pt. 3)

This post marks the eleventh entry for the current Roots of Hope blog theme: Seeds of Change. To read some of the previous entries, see What comes next: study abroad and youth-led change in Cuba, How Cell Phones Can Shake a Nation, Begin from the Beginning: the need for open dialogue, From New Orleans to Havana, Cuba's Economic Reforms: A Window of Opportunity.

A brief introduction:

For the purpose of the Seeds of Change theme on our blog, we wanted to tell our readers about the power of translating blogs. As many of you know, for Cuba's blogging community, the people who translate their blogs represent the opportunity to reach a broader audience, maximize their impact, and BE HEARD. As an example, Mary Jo Porter - who acts as translator for Yoani Sanchez - describes the effect of her work in an interview we featured earlier this month. What we found as we set out to feature blog translating in an entry, was that the greatest testament came from Cuban bloggers themselves. And so, we will be featuring their answers and comments over the next weeks.

To follow up Regina Coyula's response and Orlando Luis Pardo's answer, here is a message from Yamil Dominguez over email:

This is Yamil. First of all I have wanted to thank you directly for a long time for all the precious help you gave me by translating with so much dedication for our blog. Me, my family and friends always have you in mind, we talk about you often. Your work has been excellent, I read it myself once I got back home to the US. At this moment I am in the process of starting again, Marleny will come soon, and she will write to you herself.

About the work of helping translate Cuban blogs I think it is very important for every idea to become freer and to be respected, for this reason if one can count on the help of putting it in other languages it is much better. Thanks to your translations, for example, many have been able to read the details regarding my case and understand with a better outlook the realities of Cuba that are so hidden and unknown for so many.
Te escribe Yamil, primero que nada quiero agradecerte directamente desde hace mucho tiempo toda esa valiosa ayuda que me distes al traducirme con tanta dedicacion para nuestro blog. Mi familia y amigos siempre te tenemos presente , a cada rato se habla de ti .Tu trabajo ha sido exelente , yo mismo lo he leido una vez que llegue de vuelta a casa a los EU. En estos momentos me encuentro en el periodo de recomienzo , pronto Marleny vendra , ella misma te escribira.Sobre el trabajo de ayudar a traducir los blogs de Cuba opino que es muy importante que cada idea se haga mas libre y sea respetada, para eso si se cuenta con la ayuda para que salga en otras lenguas es mucho mejor, gracias a tus traducciones por ejemplo muchos han podido leer detalles sobre lo acontecido en mi caso y entienden con mejor panorama las realidades de cuba ocultas y desconocidas para tantos .

Besos y abrazos de Yamil y su familia

Click here to visit Yamil's blog.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Roots of Hope Statement: Passing of Laura Pollan

Raíces de Esperanza/Roots of Hope mourns the loss of Laura Pollan, a mother, teacher and civil rights leader, who passed away on Friday, October 14th, 2011. Pollan was an example of perseverance and courage for all, often standing for her beliefs in the face of harsh opposition. Her white dress, weekly marches, and leadership of the Ladies in White has inspired the world over.

Pollan’s impact will not be forgotten. Her commitment to her formerly imprisoned husband and to a pluralistic and free Cuba was unswerving. She helped inspire the Hunger for Change marches throughout the world in March 2010, and she will continue to serve as a beacon of hope to all Cubans who desire a Cuban future that respects all human rights and civil liberties.

Raíces de Esperanza/Roots of Hope would like to extend its heartfelt condolences to Pollan’s family and friends. The world lost a hero this week.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Seeds of Change: Understanding & Supporting Micro-finance Efforts in Cuba

This post marks the tenth entry for the current Roots of Hope blog theme: Seeds of Change. To read some of the previous entries, see What comes next: study abroad and youth-led change in Cuba,

The video below takes a closer look at Micro-finance efforts in Cuba and how the public and private sectors, as well as individuals can begin to understand, support, and guide economic empowerment in Cuba. For related information about the Cuba Small Business Initiative, see here. Also, we urge you to check out the Cuba Study Group's Executive Director's post for Seeds of Change on the effect of economic change in Cuba and the windows of opportunity it creates for those of us across the Florida Straights.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Seeds of Change - Cuba's Economic Reforms: A Window of Opportunity

This post marks the ninth entry for the current Roots of Hope blog theme: Seeds of Change. To read some of the previous entries, see What comes next: study abroad and youth-led change in Cuba, How Cell Phones Can Shake a Nation, Begin from the Beginning: the need for open dialogue, and From New Orleans to Havana.

Cuba’s Economic Reforms: A Window of Opportunity

By Tomas Bilbao

Few times, if any, in Cuba’s modern history has there been such an opportunity to help fuel the seeds of change on the island. The process of economic reforms put in place by Raul Castro, though limited and often contradictory, provide a window of opportunity help thousands of Cuban entrepreneurs succeed in starting and operating their own, independent businesses.

For years, the focus of those interested in planting seeds of change in Cuba has been almost exclusively on providing humanitarian and democracy-promotion assistance in the way of U.S. government funded programs through NGOs. While this work is important and can be productive if properly managed, it is limited in both scope and effectiveness. The U.S. government monopoly on assistance to the island until recently has relegated the immense potential of family and people-to-people assistance to the sidelines.

Two important factors have changed the landscape today:

1) Cuba’s process of economic reforms: In an effort to attempt to rescue Cuba’s failing economy, the Cuban government has begun to implement unprecedented reforms which include the authorization of a limited number of self-employment categories.

2) Recent changes in U.S. policy: Regulatory changes by President Obama created new opportunities for civil society in the U.S. to assist civil society inside Cuba through travel, remittances and people-to-people exchanges.

Given the ability of Cubans to start their own businesses and new U.S. regulations that allow U.S. citizens to assist Cubans on the island directly, those interested in helping empower Cubans on the island to determine their own future can now do so directly. Here are some ways U.S. nationals can help plant seeds of change in Cuba:

• Visit family: Given the isolation of the Cuban people, their contact with the outside world has been limited. This means that the opportunity to visit family in Cuba provides them with a window to the outside world. By taking them information and resources, U.S. nationals can help their families in Cuba take advantage of the economic reforms.

• Send remittances to family in Cuba: U.S. nationals can now remit unlimited amounts of money to family residing in Cuba. This money can be used to help them meet basic needs or to start their own small businesses to reduce their dependence on remittances and government programs.

• Send remittances to civil society: New U.S. regulations allow U.S. nationals to remit up to $500 to non-family members per quarter, per recipient “to support the development of private businesses, among other purposes.” This empowers every American to become an agent of change and makes every Cuban a potential entrepreneur.

• Participate in people-to-people exchanges: Thanks to the new regulations, U.S. nationals who do not have family on the island can also help empower Cuban civil society through direct contact. Educational, athletic, cultural and religious organizations are now authorized to travel to Cuba under a general license if they meet certain conditions. These exchanges can serve to provide Cuban entrepreneurs with information and training to start of expand their independent businesses. It also allows academics; artists and athletes to better understand the needs of the Cuban people in order to take advantage of new U.S. regulations.

There is no question that Cuba’s economic reforms have been timid and are limited in scope, nor the fact that U.S. regulations continue to present important barriers to assisting civil society in Cuba, but the environment today presents the best opportunity in half a century to empower civil society. These important changes allow any U.S. nationals to become agents of change regardless of whether they have family on the island. Since these regulations were announced, over 300,000 Americans a year have visited family on the island and another 100,000 have engaged in people-to-people travel. In addition, approximately one billion dollars has been sent as family remittances with up to another billion has been taken in the forms of goods by travelers to Cuba.

The enormous potential created by these reforms and changes in U.S. policy represents the best window of opportunity help empower civil society in Cuba in decades. All Americans, not just those with family on the island, can become agents of change by taking advantage of this opportunity to help entrepreneurs on the island start and expand their independent businesses. Doing so will help them reduce the dependence on the Cuban government and remittances from abroad, empowering them to become authors of their own future. This is an opportunity that should not be missed. Now is the time to plant seeds of change in Cuba by supporting its budding entrepreneurs.

Tomas Bilbao is Executive Director of the Cuba Study Group and is an MBA candidate at the Kellogg School of Management. He was born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela and is passionate about promoting and defending democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @TomasBilbao.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Summer Fellows Journal: Wrapping Up

This post marks the "beginning of the end" of a series of accounts by the 2011 Roots of Hope Summer Fellows, focusing on their experiences, thoughts, and musings over the course of the coming months!

By Claudia Diaz

I finished my time as a Raíces summer fellow a few weeks ago; now, thinking back and reflecting on everything that happened this summer, I can’t help but to feel incredibly grateful to have found Raíces and the opportunity to work with everyone in it. I joined this organization because I believed and identified very much with what it stood for, and because of my strong desire to do something, anything for Cuba. Over the summer, as I attained a deeper understanding of the inner workings of the organization these feelings grew stronger and stronger. I realized the amazing group of people that make up Raíces is as important as the work they do. I am grateful to have met not only outstanding leaders of the Miami community but also every single person that is on the team and that somehow contributes their time to this cause; a very diverse circle of talented young people who are all passionate about Cuba and who are doing something for it.

I think the work that Raíces does is truly invaluable. Without a doubt, helping connect Cuban youth to each other and the rest of the world has had and will continue to have tremendous influence on the future of Cuba. Knowledge and information have power beyond our thoughts; ideas give birth to more ideas, and to actions.

Contributing to this kind of work was incredible, but also gave rise to the constant questions of: -what more can we do?- is this enough?- and the final, harsh question - are we having any real influence-” I speak for myself, but I am sure this question at some point haunts anyone working towards any kind of positive change in society. However, this is part of what keeps everyone on their toes, thinking and innovating. Measuring the influence of the work we do in Raíces is hard because we often look at big pictures; we must look at the hundreds and thousands of smaller pictures. We must look at every household who now has a better way of keeping in touch, at every text and picture message sent from one young person to the other. At every video that is uploaded to the internet, opening a window to Cuba, letting everyone know. At every university student who will have a flash drive, and a way to share and attain information about the world, and Cuba itself. At every new person in a University campus who somehow learns of what goes on in Cuba and feels an urge, at least for a moment, to do something for it. And at every young Cuban outside of the island who is surprised that there are people interested in this cause and that work for it, and who are reminded or first informed that there is something that they can do for the country that is as much part of their culture and themselves as the one they live in.

There is a lot of work to do; infinite ways in which we can contribute to the growth and betterment of Cuba; but at the level of I, the individual, it all starts with a connection: to a friend, a family member, a fellow musician, student or baseball player, or a blogger. That is what Raices is all about, human connections, and at the end the bonds of love and friendship we form with people around us give way to channels of information and inspiration.

This has been an unforgettable and inspiring summer, and I hope I can continue to work towards our common dreams. I will never forget the colorful office that lent such a unique ambiance to the work we did, as well as the fun times with Chabeli, Ben, Raul, Miguel, Janelle, everyone on the team, and of course with Felice; this summer would not have been the same without his amazing leadership. Spending time with of all of you made my summer. Cheers.

Claudia Diaz will be starting her third year at the University of Chicago this fall, where she is a pursuing a major in Political Science and a minor in Human Rights. She came to the United States at the age of 11 and has lived in Miami ever since. To contact Claudia, email

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Roots of Hope Accepts CPAC Invitation

Roots of Hope is honored to accept an invitation to participate in the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) to take place this Friday, September 23rd, in Orlando, FL. We will be presenting on a panel entitled “In the Grips of Communism: Freedom of Expression in Cuba.”

Roots of Hope is a non-partisan, non-profit organization created with the goals of raising awareness about the issues faced by young Cubans, connecting with our counterparts on the island, and empowering youth in Cuba to become the authors of their own future. We are a diverse movement of youth that represent a spectrum of ideologies.

Our participation at CPAC seeks to represent the voice of Cuban youth before a national forum. This Conference will allow us to help educate the public about issues of censorship Cuban youth face on a daily basis, while also sharing the ways our organization is making an impact in the lives of young people in Cuba. We eagerly accept invitations to share and learn from prestigious organizations with very different scopes of work, engage in healthy dialogue, and foster an increasingly diverse and collaborative Cuban community.

Roots of Hope does not endorse or support any political group, candidate, or policy.

For any questions, contact Miguel Cruz at

Monday, September 19, 2011

Seeds of Change: A Postcard to the World

This post marks the eight entry for the current Roots of Hope blog theme: Seeds of Change. To read some of the previous entries, see What comes next: study abroad and youth-led change in Cuba, How Cell Phones Can Shake a Nation, Begin from the Beginning: the need for open dialogue, and From New Orleans to Havana.
As an introduction, 100cameras identifies children who are victims of injustice based on their surrounding circumstances and gives them cameras to document their lives. Upon completion of a project, 100cameras has the unique position to carry these photographs across borders to bridge communities together. You see, through their own photography, the children become self-advocators. Their pictures are the voices that speak awareness, and when you purchase one of the children’s photos, 100% of your money is given back to their community to empower sustainable growth. We've completed three projects to date in South Sudan, NYC, and Cuba.

A Postcard to the World

By Angela Francine Bullock

This past June, our team taught the 100cameras photography curriculum to a group of Cuban children that has never been given the chance to share their perspectives with the world outside their borders. Through our relationship with Global Baseball – a program that utilizes baseball to engage youth and teach them valuable life skills – 100cameras partnered with Campo Amor to best serve the particular children’s community.

During the first few days of my Cuba experience, I was not sure what I thought about socialism. I'd heard about this country for years, having grown up in northern Florida with this island only 90 miles south of our coast…close enough to hear first-hand stories from the older generation about wearing dog tags to school in Jacksonville during the missile crisis, but not close enough to have experienced the sweet, loving and family oriented warmth of the exiles that had moved to the south or to comprehend the Cuban government's effect on their own people. My basic opinions on Cuba were solely based on the culture of my surroundings and how it affected me.

The 100cameras team prepared for this project for over a year. Our Field Coordinator – Susanna Kohly – is a Cuban-American and equipped us with a solid understanding of the nation's history, current political environment, and all the possibilities of its future. And I felt mentally ready to digest “Cuban Socialism” through my own personal experience in the field.

But when I first arrived, my mind began to question everything. On a surface level, it just didn’t seem too bad to live like you were stuck in 1962. There were vintage cars, high-waisted skirts, and Rock n’ Roll oldies playing from old speakers, without the media and celebrity mania I was accustomed to back home. This is largely because internet is scarce, and when it is available, it’s a dialup modem from 1999 that cannot work well enough to consume very much of a person’s time. And furthermore, things like our complex media mayhem and reality TV aren’t even allowed into a family’s home. It felt like the society flowed in seemingly simple days. With free education & healthcare. And among people with beautiful souls.

And after stepping off the plane from the busyness of New York City, this all felt a bit refreshing.

Alright, yes. I admit it. I was drinking the Koolaid.

As our team began to work closely with our group of tweens for the 100cameras photography project, I experienced firsthand how people are deprived of many rights, expressions, and opinions. Their opportunities are extremely limited. And regardless of the seemingly simple days without television and the access to free education and health care, we witnessed how these bigger picture limitations have created a climate of fear. It was apparent that the underlying trigger factors of this climate were greatly prohibiting growth, and not just in my American definition of growth – but rather the right to grow as individuals who are allowed to decide what to speak, how to work or create, and ultimately, to contribute to a global society.

Although this climate of fear hinders the exercise of basic human rights such as freedom of speech and expression, our team strongly believed that photography could help. In fact, not only could we provide these children with the opportunity to document their perspectives, but we could also bring those impressions beyond the limits of their everyday life.

During this time of significant political tension between Cuba and other parts of the world, we have had the privilege of providing others with an opportunity to see Cuba through the eyes of a child, which is possibly the closest reflection of reality in its most untainted, unmotivated form. As we spent time with our photographers, we saw hope and excitement in their eyes when they held a camera. They ran through their neighborhood streets to camera class (Literally! We saw them!), listened to the photography lessons and eagerly completed their portfolio assignments. They recognized that through this new voice, they had the opportunity to tell their story.

Our team believes that through the voice of photography, we can empower Cuban youth to take ownership of both their current and future stories, truly empowering the grassroots efforts for positive change within their communities. Perhaps, even the entire island. Because we believe that whatever shape their future takes is the fateful shape of the island.

Angela Francine Bullock
100cameras Public Relations Director

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Summer Fellows Journal: Wrapping Up

This post marks the "beginning of the end" of a series of accounts by the 2011 Roots of Hope Summer Fellows, focusing on their experiences, thoughts, and musings over the course of the coming months!

By Ben Tyler

This blog post has been extremely difficult for me to write. Being asked to write a post summing up my summer would usually not be very hard, but I simply have not been able to decide on the right words to describe the summer I had as a Raices de Esperanza Summer Fellow. After toiling with this post for some time, I have decided to do my best to summarize what was one of the more insightful, intense, and fun summers I have ever had.

First and foremost, the Fellowship was an educational experience. As I have previously posted, although I am half Cuban, lived in Miami all my life, and attended a primarily Cuban high school, I truly did not know what “being Cuban” meant to me. I had heard the stories of my grandparents and only knew Cuba as the island paradise that had been taken away from them by an oppressive regime. While Cuba may have been that at one point, Raices has helped educate me on what Cuba truly is today: a nation full of young people eager to seize any opportunity they can attain. Raices helped me put a face to Cuba and made me realize that the conversation should not be about international sanctions or economic systems, but about what we can do to give my peers on the island the same opportunities that I have had growing up in this country. The goal is very simple: to empower Cuban youth to become authors of their own future. Clearly politics have not lead us there and Raices has taught me how to change the conversation for the better.

Apart from learning more about my heritage and the problems facing Cuba today, the Fellowship exposed me to a network of student and community leaders from all walks of life. Over the summer I made some incredible friendships and connected with some of the most interesting people that I have ever met. Raices prides itself on its people, young leaders from around the country who have the courage to do what no one else has done before: change the debate. My peers at Raices inspire me on a daily basis to continue working hard and improving myself. The best part about “Roots” is that not only are they brilliant and innovative, they are some of the most down-to-Earth people you will ever meet. It is easy to be egotistical being a part of such an extraordinary organization, but Roots pride themselves on having fun as much as they work. Never would I have imagined having as much fun at work as I did this summer.

Proffessionally, the fellowship allowed me to meet with someof the most important leaders that our community has to offer. From Congresswoman Ileanna Ros-Lehtinen to former Pepsico executive Nestor Carbonell, each one of these leaders provided a unique perspective on Cuba and on life in general. Exposure to these kinds of leaders cannot be found anywhere else and is one of the reasons the fellowship is so special.

Finally, I wanted to thank the people who made this summer possible. To Raul, Miguel, Janelle, and Tony: Thank you for all that you did to make this summer possible. You all brough a unique wrinkle to the office that made me look forward to coming to work everyday. To Chabelli and Claudia: Thank you for being such incredible peers. I learned as much from the two of you as I did from anyone else and I am glad we had the opportunity to work so closely this summer. Last, but certainly not least, I would like to thank Felice. Words cannot express how thankful I am to you for bringing me on and allowing me to experience and become a part of Raices. You have an uncanny ability to make people feel instantly comfortable and you went out of your way to give us the best summer we could’ve possibly had. I learned so much from you beyond what you consciously taught me and I know you are going to do great things at the White House.

All in all it is safe to say that the Raices de Esperanza Summer Fellowship changed my life for the better. I learned a lot, had a great time, and made some incredible friends. When people ask me what I did this summer it is very difficult to answer concisely, but most of the time I tell them “I spent my summer working to better the lives of young Cubans and had an incredible time doing it”

Until next time,

Dale con dale,


Ben Tyler is a rising sophomore in the Georgetown University Walsh School of Foreign Service and a Raíces de Esperanza 2011 Summer Fellow. To contact Ben, email

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Seeds of Change - The Freedom of Music Festivals

This post marks the seventh entry for the current Roots of Hope blog theme: Seeds of Change. To read previous entries, see What comes next: study abroad and youth-led change in Cuba, How Cell Phones Can Shake a Nation, Begin from the Beginning: the need for open dialogue, and From New Orleans to Havana.

By Alex Freeman

More than a month later, the takeover of the Rotilla Festival in Havana still comes up in my daily life. Absolute freedom is not something I expect granted to the cultural circles of Cuba, but the erosion of the Rotilla Festival was unexpected. And yet as music festivals die in Havana, they’ve grown in the US. My summer will be bookended by two music festivals, Bonnaroo in central Tennessee and Virgin Mobile FreeFest in between DC and Baltimore.

The first, Bonnaroo, was a convergence of music, culture, art, and 80,000 people from across North America. It was a pure celebration by people who only wanted to enjoy their time away from home in a place unlike any other. And the founder of Rotilla festival, Michel Matos, wished to provide the same cultural Mecca to all those who could make it. According to their press release, the Rotilla Festival “promotes and exposes the great majority of the demonstrations of the Cuban artistic vanguard. It is of a non-lucrative character, completely free and open to the public.”

Angered at the destruction of the Rotilla Festival, the press release rightfully lashed out at the people and institutions that warped the meaning of their event into a State charade. The Cuban government transformed the three-day escape that the Rotilla Festival had provided for more than a decade into a lackluster charade of the Revolutionary spirit.

“We, organizers and authors of the Rotilla Festival, and I myself, its director and founder, DENOUNCE the theft, plagiarism, and kidnapping that this attitude represents for all the young people of this earth that we today represent. We denounce the excessive and stubborn censorship that is being exerted against any cultural activity that DOES NOT originate in the so-called institutions. We denounce the harassment to which we are constantly being put through. We denounce the surveillance and the subtle or direct threats to which we are subject daily.”

What once was a break from the norm for Cuban youth was transformed into more of the same.

In a few weeks, I will be attending Virgin Mobile FreeFest. Amidst 40 acres of green forest, dozens of bands will perform, artists will present their work and fans will celebrate. Much like what Rotilla Festival once was, FreeFest is free and meant as a break from the norm that you can’t get anywhere else.

The fact that the Rotilla Festival existed in the first place is a sign that some seeds of change have taken root in Cuban culture. There is the demand for a mental respite from the constant strain of daily life. Thousands of Cuban youth can attest to the awesome power that a music festival holds and were disappointed to hear that the Rotilla Festival was reorganized. But the seeds of change are already planted inside each and every patron who had attended the Rotilla Festival in the past decade.

So I’m grateful that I can attend festivals that are meant for celebration of my freedoms rather than my State. And I hope that the youth in Havana can have that opportunity again one day soon.

Alex Freeman is a senior at Northwestern University majoring in Political Science and International Studies. He spent the summer interning with the Cuba Study Group keeping up on Cuban news and attending meetings and discussions in DC about Cuban and Latin American affairs.

Seeds of Change: From New Orleans to Habana

This post marks the sixth entry for the current Roots of Hope blog theme: Seeds of Change. To read previous entries, see What comes next: study abroad and youth-led change in Cuba, How Cell Phones Can Shake a Nation, and Begin from the Beginning: the need for open dialogue.

By Annie Gibson

A few days ago I arrived in la Habana with a group of students from Tulane University in New Orleans. They are about to embark on an amazing adventure, studying for a semester at la Universidad de la Habana in the Departments of Artes y Letras and Geografía y Filosofia. It is an experience that few North American students are granted due to the obvious hurdles caused by the strained relations between Cuba and the United States since 1959.

Tulane University has engaged in a semester long study abroad program in Havana, Cuba in partnership with the University of Havana since 2009. This program evolved out of several years of sustained effort by Tulane’s Cuban and Caribbean Studies Institute (a part of Tulane’s Stone Center for Latin American Studies) to develop relations with Cuban counterpart organizations for the purposes of academic collaboration and exchange, curricular development, cultural exchange and international development and dialogue. The Cuban & Caribbean Studies Institute, a part of Tulane’s Stone Center for Latin American Studies, was officially established in 1997, and has been responsible for the organization of a variety of lectures, performances, courses, symposia, etc. aimed at promoting a true academic and cultural exchange between Cuba and the United States. (

This August, we began our Cuba semester study abroad in Miami, where we made visits to key cultural and political leaders within the Cuban-American communitybecause in order to fully understand Cuba, one cannot leave out its diasporas. And for most in the United States, the term “Cuban-American” primarily evokes images of Miami. As the most populous resettlement of Cuban expatriates in the US, Miami has been the undisputed home of Cuban-American culture and commerce for half a century. For students coming to Cuba from Tulane, however, I am quick to mention that that not only is Miami an important city to study in connection to Cuban-American relations, but their own city of New Orleans has historical ties that date back to the 1800s.

From 1762 until 1800, New Orleans was a Spanish colony administered by the Captains General of Cuba stationed in Havana. That situation ensured close ties between New Orleans, located at the helm of North America’s most expansive riverine network, and Havana, the well-protected port at the Gulf Stream’s entrance to the Atlantic. By the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Havana and New Orleans were fundamental hubs along an “American Mediterranean” that also included Hispaniola and New Spain. Consequently, the ports at New Orleans and Havana enjoyed centuries of communication, and in the mid-20th century, Cuba was New Orleans’ most voluminous and lucrative trading partner. These ties were critical in the economic, political, and cultural development of each.

The Cuban embargo of 1963 transformed US-Cuban policy and trade into a vehement anti-Castroism. Bolstered by millions in CIA funds and a steady flow of Cuban migrants, while Miami instantly became the epicenter of the Cuban-American community, fifty years later, New Orleans’ port economy has stagnated, never fully recovering from the loss of its vital commercial ally.

This semester of study in Havana, is, thus, not only an opportunity for Tulane students to learn about Cuba, but also to see the historic and cultural ties between New Orleans and Havana that make New Orleans the city that it is today. These adventurous Tulane students will be ambassadors of culture, opening the gates of communication to better understanding the transnational ties between Cuba and New Orleans. We will keep you posted on their findings!

Annie Gibson received her PhD in 2010 from the Stone Center for Latin American Studies at Tulane University. Her areas of specialization include Cuban and Brazilian performance cultures and Brazilian immigration to the United States. Her travels and research in both Cuba and Brazil have been supported by two FLAS Fellowships, the Tinker Foundation, and the Research Group for the Study of the Global South. At Tulane, Dr. Gibson teaches a diverse range of courses in Spanish and Portuguese language and literature, Latin American migrant cultures and literature, and performance cultures of Latin America. She holds a contract in both the Departments of Latin American Studies and of Spanish and Portuguese. Dr. Gibson’s experience with study abroad began when she was an undergraduate at Dartmouth College, participating in study abroad semesters in Argentina and Brazil. In 2004, she directed a spring break trip to Costa Rica for Princeton Day School middle and high school students, in 2010 she was the Resident Director for Tulane’s summer in Costa Rica program and in 2011 she led a summer program for the Rassias Foundation in Pontevedra, Spain. She is currently the resident director of Cuba’s semester study abroad program in Havana, Cuba.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Seeds of Change - Begin from the beginning: the need for open dialogue

This post marks the fifth entry for the current Roots of Hope blog theme: Seeds of Change. To see previous entries, read about how cell phones can shake a nation and the potential impact of studying abroad.

By Ariel Elias

If you keep looking for answers, you will only find frustration. I’m not sure if this was told to me by someone in Cuba or if the conclusion was my own. No doubt it is a philosophy based on the efficiency and transparency, or lack thereof, of the Cuban government, a force that permeates every aspect of Cuban life. Whether you agree or disagree with the government itself, there is no denying that even the simplest, most innocent of acts can turn political. The meticulous eye of a good idea gone awry watches its people, sometimes subtle and hidden, other times so overwhelming it becomes humorous, bringing out the choteo, making you think, “Surely you have better things to do.”

Cuba is unique because of its complications. You must learn to recognize the difference between an answer and the answer. It is a country of layers that cannot be understood until experienced, and even then, your head will continue to spin as you attempt to differentiate between the real and the lie, the genuine and the exaggerated. Too much is hidden or covered up, blamed on los yanquis or people who have been dead for the better half of a century. Suddenly, you are faced with two choices: believe what you hear or develop an imagination, an imagination that does not blind you or foster naïveté, rather one that fills in the blanks and encourages hope.

So that’s what we’re left with. An imagination, an openness that does not exist with older generations, a restlessness that only occurs when you know there is a better way. We learn to work with what we have, taking it one step at a time. For now, we discuss. We argue, we culture shock, we fight the censors and demand to be heard, we empathize, but most importantly, we establish a relationship. We set the foundation and attempt to correct centuries of wrongdoing that we did not cause, yet we are now responsible for. We ease the tension and create the space. Ultimately, we do not find the answers, we discover them.

Ariel Elias is a recent graduate from Tulane University, and studied abroad in Cuba in the fall of 2009. She currently lives in New Orleans as a medical translator/stand-up comic.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Seeds of Change - Loudspeakers for Cuban Voices (Pt. 2)

This post marks the fourth entry for the current Roots of Hope blog theme: Seeds of Change. To read previous entries, see What comes next: study abroad and youth-led change in Cuba and How Cell Phones Can Shake a Nation.

A brief introduction:

For the purpose of the Seeds of Change theme on our blog, we wanted to tell our readers about the power of translating blogs. As many of you know, for Cuba's blogging community, the people who translate their blogs represent the opportunity to reach a broader audience, maximize their impact, and BE HEARD. As an example, Mary Jo Porter - who acts as translator for Yoani Sanchez - describes the effect of her work in an interview we featured earlier this month. What we found as we set out to feature blog translating in an entry, was that the greatest testament came from Cuban bloggers themselves. And so, we will be featuring their answers and comments over the next weeks.

To follow up Regina Coyula's response, here is a message from Orlando Luis Pardo:

The word of independent Cuban bloggers is like a light that is true, but very fragile. Before the totalitarian power of the official media, every effort is small to boost this alternative current within today's Cuba. To translate to other languages, to make accessible to other audiences of the world these independent looks into the Absolute State, is a gesture of solidarity of incalculable human and historic worth.

The volunteer translators can hardly feel the emotion that they provoke in each author with each one of the posts they help disseminate. Never have the critical voices within the island counted with such a citizen platform of world support. Never have we felt so accompanied in the midst of the most uncivil solitude(socialipsysm: what I like to call this sub-existential situation after half a century of a Revolution that is "irreversible" even by our Constitution).

We can only give you back our love vocalized in the most elementary of words: Thank you…Or even better, of course, because we already are even without knowing each other: Thank you, brothers...


La palabra de los bloggers independientes cubanos es como una luz verdadera, pero muy frágil. Ante el poder totalitario de los medios oficiales, todo esfuerzo es poco para potenciar esta corriente alternativa dentro de la Cuba de hoy. Traducir a otros idiomas, hacer accesible a otras audiencias del mundo estas miradas independientes al
Estado Absoluto, es un gesto solidario de incalculable valor humano e histórico. Los traductores voluntarios difícilmente puedan sentir la emoción que provocan en cada autor con cada uno de sus posts que ayudan a difundir. Nunca las voces críticas dentro de la Isla contaron con tal plataforma ciudadana de apoyo mundial. Nunca nos sentimos tan acompañados en medio de la más incivil soledad social (socialipsismo:
me gusta llamar a esta situación sub-existencial tras medio siglo de Revolución "irreversible" hasta por nuestra Constitución). Sólo podemos devolverles nuestro cariño vocalizado en la más elemental de las palabras: Gracias... O mejor, por supuesto, porque ya lo somos incluso sin conocernos: Gracias, hermanos...

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Seeds of Change - Loudspeakers for Cuban Voices

This post marks the third entry for the current Roots of Hope blog theme: Seeds of Change. To read previous entries, see What comes next: study abroad and youth-led change in Cuba and How Cell Phones Can Shake a Nation.

A brief introduction:

For the purpose of the Seeds of Change theme on our blog, we wanted to tell our readers about the power of translating blogs. As many of you know, for Cuba's blogging community, the people who translate their blogs represent the opportunity to reach a broader audience, maximize their impact, and BE HEARD. As an example, Mary Jo Porter - who acts as translator for Yoani Sanchez - describes the effect of her work in an interview we featured earlier this month. What we found as we set out to feature blog translating in an entry, was that the greatest testament came from Cuban bloggers themselves. And so, we will be featuring their answers and comments over the next weeks.

To start, here is Regina Coyula's message:

Hello to all translators,

The voluntary translations of our blogs is an invaluable labor. This work allows the reality of our country to be seen from a more realistic point of view, different from the one official propaganda has offered. I hope it has helped many people form a more complete -and complex- idea of my country. Thank you so much for making me a part of this.

Saludos para los traductores,

Es una labor inestimable la traducción voluntaria de nuestras bitácoras, pues de esa manera la realidad de nuestro país puede verse desde un punto de vista diferente al que ha ofrecido la propaganda oficial. Espero que haya ayudado a muchas perdonas a formarse una idea más completa -y compleja- de mi país. Muchas gracias por el pedacito que me ha tocado.

See Regina's blog here. To get involved in translating blogs from Cuba, visit

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

How Cuban Voices Get Heard: Interview with Mary Jo Porter

To see this interview as it was originally published, click here.

Mary Jo Porter is an American who lives in Seattle. When she wakes up each day, she works as a transportation consultant. In the moments she is not working, she focuses her energies and talents on providing an enormous help for Cuban dissidents on the island, especially the independent bloggers, all the way from her laptop in Seattle. Mary Jo, or “Maria” as her Cuban friends know her, is responsible for the English translation of Yoani Sanchez’s world renowned blog, “Generation Y”. In addition to helping Yoani’s voice travel a little (or a lot) further, she also translates for Claudia Cadelo’s “Octavo Cerco”, Reinaldo Escobar’s “Desde Aqui”, and many others.

Together, with friends and volunteers, Maria has help set up Hemos Oido, a website which posts the blogs of members of the alternative Cuban blogosphere and allows anyone who wishes to volunteer to translate these bloggers into other languages- English, French and German among them. Porter is an example of the importance and effectiveness stemming from solidarity with the Cuban cause, despite not being Cuban. She is one of the many non-Cubans who have decided to spread word of Cuba’s reality throughout the world, not for money, not for political reasons, but instead straight from the kindness of her heart and her sympathy for the Cuban struggle for freedom.

Recently, Yoani’s entries were compiled into a book, “Havana Real”. Below is the story of Mary Jo Porter- “Maria”- and how she became involved with Cuba, as well as her thoughts on this book, the independent Cuban blogosphere, and the island’s reality:

PDLI: You are Yoani Sanchez's translator in English. As we all know, Yoani is Cuban. You are an American from Seattle. What inspired you, as a non-Cuban, to take on such a task?

Mary Jo Porter: “Inspired” is probably the wrong word, it was much more accidental than that. Briefly, the chain of events that led to my translating Yoani’s blog is this.

In late 2007, a Canadian friend, Chris DeMarco, invited me to go to Cuba to visit her daughter Jenny who was working in Havana for a Canadian non-profit. I said “yes!” and turned to Google for information about the island (praying that Dick Cheney wasn’t getting an “alert” every time I typed “Cuba” into my browser). I came across Yoani’s blog in English and was instantly captivated, as people are, by her writing, her point of view, her voice. When I got home from Cuba, naturally I was Cuba-obsessed – I think that country grabs the unwary – and Yoani’s blog became the main food for my new obsession.

Two months later the blog stopped being in English, but I struggled through the entries, relying on Google Translator, taking in as much as I could. Then Yoani put a short note on her blog saying she needed a new English translator. After a week or two when no English posts appeared, I said to myself, “someone’s gotta do it.” So, I’d had seven years of French, two years of Latin and five weeks of Spanish, “What’s a little Spanish?” I thought. I sent Yoani my pathetic first translations, and she sent me the password to the English site.

PDLI: So if you didn’t know Spanish, how could you translate the blog?

MJP: The short answer is I couldn’t. Which turned out to be a good thing in every way. It led to everything that came after, including, and the help of literally hundreds of volunteers.

If I had known Spanish I probably would have just turned my hand to translating the blog and that would have been the end of the story: Yoani’s blog in English. And of course if Yoani had known English then, she would have laughed at my first efforts (and sent the password to someone else!), another end to the story.

PDLI: But how did you manage to translate?

MJP: I knew I couldn’t do it, but I thought I could find help to get it done, so I posted a notice: “This blog is the work of volunteer translators. Please help.” Note the plural “translators.” Within a day, it was true.

People emailed me from all over the world. They edited my feeble efforts, explained Cuban slang, corrected grammar, cleared up misconceptions, and we were off and running. Early on, there was a co-translator, Susanna Groves, who actually knew some Spanish; she worked closely with me until she had to set it aside to work on the 2008 elections. I still rely enormously on other people’s help, even though I’ve been doing it for over three years now.

PDLI: Can you tell us a bit about and

MJP: In addition to Generation Y there were a number of other great bloggers on Yoani’s same domain,, and I wanted to translate them as well. As my Spanish improved, I added Reinaldo Escobar’s blog, “Desde Aqui,” and then others, and when people emailed offering to help, I would keep a mental note of those who “came and stayed” and kept asking them to do more and more. Some were people like Norma Whiting, who came from Cuba as a teenager and now translates Miriam Celaya’s blog, and Regina Anavy, an American who cut sugar cane in Cuba to help the Revolution but who now helps Cubans in other ways. There are way too many people to name them all, but those are examples two who “came and stayed.”

Meanwhile, Yoani and company started the Blogger Academy and we just couldn’t keep up. There were great blogs like Claudia Cadelo’s “Octavo Cerco,” Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo’s “Post Revolution Mondays,” the blog of the Black Spring political prisoners written (or dictated) from prison, “Voices Behind the Bars,” “Crossing the Barbed Wire” by Luis Felipe Rojas, blogs from Laritza Diversent, Ivan Garcia, Regina Coyula, Angel Santiestaban, Rebeca Monzo, the list goes on and on. And there were some of the earliest bloggers, like Dimas Castellanos and Miguel Iturria Savon, that I’d been wanting to translate for a long time.

I felt we needed to show that the exhaustion with the “revolutionary process,” with the lack of human rights, wasn’t just the weird dream of a few misguided people. And clearly we needed a way to more efficiently harvest the energies of all the people who had time to give, but not their whole lives. And we wanted the translations to reflect the differences of opinion among the bloggers, the plurality of voices. So, with the help of my friend (from the 4th grade) Karen Heffner Chun, we did a test run on Yoani’s blog that we called the “Cooperative Translation Experiment.” We couldn’t put the entries up fast enough, there were so many people wanting to help.

Karen then came up with the idea of having a separate site, and she coded and created it and that’s how came into being. People working in other languages wanted in, so now we have four languages and hope to add more. was created so people didn’t have to page through 30+ sites, but could, if they wanted, read all the blogs in one place.

PDLI: Your translated entries are published on Yoani’s most recent book, “Havana Real.” In the prologue, you say you traveled to Cuba and felt the "weight of the totalitarian state." What do you mean by that?

MJP reading from "Havana Real" at the University of Washington Bookstore

MJP: I should say something about my “before and after” perceptions of Cuba. In “real life” my work and background have nothing to do with Cuba – I’m a transportation consultant – and although I’m far from apolitical, Cuba wasn’t really on my daily radar. My earliest impressions of Cuba were not all bad, though I do remember being scared to death during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but I blamed that on the Russians, not Fidel. But coming of age during the Civil Rights struggles here at home and the Vietnam War, it was not hard to imagine that someone might have a better idea.

That said, I’m not stupid and 40 years later I had no illusions about a person who perpetuated himself in power for half a century. But if I thought of Fidel at all, it was as a self-aggrandizing psychopath, but an almost “well-meaning” psychopath, if you can merge those concepts in your mind. Che Guevara, interestingly, who remains a hero to so many people, I thought of as over the top nuts and self-obsessed. I felt that Fidel had at least stuck around and “done the work” while Che flitted about, a sort of jet-setting, celebrity “revolutionary.” I should mention, for those who haven’t been to Cuba, I’d been there less than 24-hours when I renamed the country The-All-Che-All-The-Time-Place; it was ridiculous.

But all it took for me to “see the light,” or in this case “the darkness,” was to arrive in Cuba and walk up the steps to our hotel. At the door were these big burly bouncers, turning away Cubans. And then of course Jenny quickly clued me in, as did Cubans I talked to. And as you know, only a small part of the horror is outrageous events, most of it is that endless grinding down and crushing of people whose entire lives are controlled by a dictator. A lifelong grinding down, where you go to your grave, still not free.

Despite what people think, Cubans didn’t really complain to me about material things, they complained about the lack of freedom. About the petty – but completely oppressive – control of the local enforcers. I only met three communists the whole time I was there. That was it. And one of the three was an American!

PDLI: Why do you think many Americans (and others) have a misconception of the Cuban reality? How does “Havana Real” shatter these perceptions?

MJP: Let me start by saying, I like to think that if Yoani has accomplished one thing, she’s reduced by at least some small fraction the number of Che Guevara T-shirts in the world!

What Yoani does is make people see clearly. Rather than rant and rave about despots or political systems, she calmly relates the stories of everyday life. What it’s like to live in a failed country under an all-powerful dictator. What it means for breakfast, lunch and dinner. What it means for your child in school, your grandmother in the hospital, your family separated by an ocean. The same stories I heard on the streets and in the living rooms of Cuba, but that don’t get told very much in that straight forward and powerful way beyond the island.

For people like me, born and raised with human rights and democracy embedded in our bones, and believing, with Anne Frank, that “people are good at heart,” it’s just a lot to grasp that someone who says they want what we want… “liberty and justice for all”… can be truly malevolent. “Havana Real” takes our blinders off.

The Cuban regime has done an excellent job creating its own myths: vilifying Batista and the U.S. role in Cuba, and regaling us with their successes in health care and education. Of course they never mention that although everyone in Cuba can read, they’re not allowed to read anything but the All-Che-All-The-Time crap approved by the regime; everything else is censored.

The American communist I met in Cuba went on about statistics for child mortality (low) and life spans (long). But individual lives are not statistics, human emotions are not statistics, human rights are violated in the flesh, not on pages of statistics. Yoani and the other bloggers fill in the details about what happens to Cubans between the time they survive infancy and when they come to the end of those long lives. It’s truly “the banality of horror.”

I also think that Yoani understands, truly understands, what a free and democratic nation requires, even though she doesn’t live in one. She understands the need for tolerance of those you disagree with, for a plurality of voices. Honestly, in addition to opening my eyes about Cuba, she’s made me a much more tolerant person with regards to the political spectrum here at home. Thinking of people I strongly disagree with, I look at them now and I’m thankful that I live in a country where they and I can come together under one government, free to express ourselves, free to fight for our beliefs, in a framework of laws and rights that protect minority viewpoints.

PDLI: In your own words, please explain the Cuban blogosphere. What would you say these bloggers represent to Cuba, and what do they represent to you? Would you say that this phenomenon has been successful?

MJP: Well talking about the independent Cuban blogosphere, I like to think they, and all the others who are resisting the regime in so many ways, represent the seeds of a free and democratic society.

For me, the most powerful message I’ve gotten from all the Cubans on the island who resist, is that Cubans living on the island are completely capable of recreating their own country. Rebuilding their own country. I have tremendous confidence in the future of Cuba – and fear sometimes, of course, because it won’t be easy – but mostly tremendous confidence.

Are the bloggers “successful”? I guess I define success as the fact that they wake up every morning and keep going. I think that’s success. It’s a cliché, perhaps, but to me yes, they represent the success of the human spirit.

PDLI: You’ve been doing this for over three years. Have you had about enough? Or do you think you’ll keep on doing it?

MJP: What I have the hardest time convincing people of is that, honestly, I don’t do what I do for Cuba, or I do it for Cuba only in the vaguest possible sense. “Cuba” does not get me up in the morning.

What gets me up in the morning is friendship, my friendship, and even love, for individual bloggers. Even though I’ve never met a single one of them, even though I can’t have extended contact with most of them, primarily because they have hardly any Internet access, I feel extraordinarily close them, even those who barely “know” me, people with whom I might have exchanged only a few emails.

Through their words, they lay themselves open, let all of us into their lives. It’s impossible not to want to do some small thing to help them, one-on-one, as individuals. They work so hard, take so many risks, pay such a high price, and at the same time gift the world with their incredible words and pictures, with their strength, courage, and sheer endurance.

I started doing this because Yoani is a young woman, a woman my daughter’s age, who needs help, the help of someone who speaks English. I can’t do anything tangible to make her life better. But I can do this intangible thing, I can help her voice resonate a little further. And I believe there’s great power in that.

I can be a part of letting all bloggers, all the resisters, know: someone is listening, someone is watching, someone knows what is happening to you. Whether alone in front of their computers, or crammed into some cell, they have not been entirely abandoned. The world IS watching. And it is watching the people who threaten and hurt them.

The bloggers represent the ability of the individual to say “No”. The almost unimaginable guts of some individuals to stand up and say “No, not me, I refuse to participate.” We all like to think that in their place we would be them. But most of us know it’s pretty unlikely.

Most of all, of course, what I hope they represent is the nascent free society, the seeds of democracy, human rights and freedom for that island.

But for me, what they most represent is my friends.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Seeds of Change - What comes next: study abroad and youth-led social change in Cuba

This post marks the second entry for the current Roots of Hope blog theme: Seeds of Change. To read previous entries, see How Cell Phones Can Shake a Nation.

By Sam Tabory

It turns out that I didn’t spend a semester studying abroad in Cuba so that I could better grasp Cuban history, the Cuban experience, or the Cuban context. Instead, I spent that semester coming to the conclusion that the situation is so intricately and overwhelmingly complex, that all I could do was ride the wave, trying to take in as much as possible, until a Miami-bound flight spit me back out in the States four months later. Cuba opened my eyes to a lot. I could try to tell you about it, but that’s not what this post is about. My experience in Cuba ended months ago, and now I've moved on to a very different place in my life, albeit still carrying with me the lessons I learned while on the island. But the Cuban youth with whom I shared those experiences and with whom I formed deep bonds still live on the island. They still endure the daily struggle. They are still looking for a way out. For a new society. For something to change.

That’s what this post is about. It is about those youth, and the potential that study abroad programs have to help them as they seek to define their own futures. Just as cell phones and the Internet are opening new avenues that allow access to information and the outside world, so too are study abroad programs. When a foreign student steps off a plane at the Jose Marti International Airport in Havana, a new stimulus is being introduced to the island. That young person will not only take away his own impressions of the island to share with the world, but he will also leave impressions. As a university student, he will inevitably make awkward small talk in class, form friendships, chat with taxi drivers, join intramural soccer teams, get drunk over dominoes, go to clubs, have heart-to-hearts, argue about sexualities, fight about politics, debate moral and material paradigms, etc. He will, simply put, live his life for four months, a semester, a year…whatever it may be, and he will leave behind an impression, even if limited, of what type of people and what type of ideas are to be found in the broader global arena. In a word, he will become a vignette, to be added to a larger collection of vignettes of all outsiders who have set foot on the island. And it is these vignettes that become food for critical thought as young people in Cuba explore and experiment with what type of new society they want to create. This is the value of study abroad in Cuba.

But don’t make the mistake of assuming that study abroad should be seen as an evangelizing force to spread the gospel of the western world. The Cuban students with whom I built strong friendships were as discerning and critical as university students anywhere. They understand the need for change on the island, but they also understand that they must be careful as to which models of change they employ. Most Cubans will readily agree that their own model or status quo is not working, but that does not mean that they are ready to blindly adopt foreign norms. They have strong opinions about social justice and the role that the State should play in the lives of citizens. These opinions are real and genuine, firmly grounded in historical tradition and collective memory, not simply the rhetoric of Fidel. To assume that study abroad in Cuba is a force by which to indoctrinate Cuban youth is incorrect. Its purpose is to introduce as many new ideas and stimuli as possible, to give young people in Cuba access to as many models as possible, so that they can begin the individual but also collective process of deciding which qualities, characteristics and models of the outside world are best for them, and which are not. Who do they want to emulate, and whose likeness do they want to avoid? These are the questions that need to be answered as Cuba moves forward in forging its future.

But the work of forging a new society is not neat. It is messy and contradictory and ultimately a very human and imprecise endeavor. It requires that those undertaking the process are the most well-informed and worldly individuals a given society has to offer. But the youth of Cuba don’t have access to global travel opportunities and study abroad programs. If they cannot see the world, the world must come to them. Although they are an imperfect stopgap, study abroad programs administered by European and North American universities are an important resource in making sure that Cuban youth have at least limited access to the schools of thought and ideologies of the global arena.

I could write pages and pages about the personal benefits that I got from studying abroad in Cuba, but the real importance of study abroad programs has more to do with what Cuban students are able to do with the raw intellectual material of having foreign nationals studying in their classrooms. Study abroad in Cuba isn’t about benevolence or proselytizing. It’s about a two-way exchange of information. Anyone who spends significant time on the island will be changed, for better or for worse. But the Cuban youth with whom you interact will also be changed, for better or for worse. Societies are built, opinions are formed, and the world goes round as we are introduced to and react to stimuli. The more stimuli we are exposed to, the faster things move. To study abroad in Cuba is to be such a stimulus in the context of a national transition. Cuba will change, and it will do so dramatically. But what that change will look like is still a matter of debate, as it should be. Study abroad programs, and the foreign stimuli they introduce, are an important component of keeping that debate alive as young people in Cuba seek to define and mold their own futures.

Sam Tabory is a senior at Tulane University. He spent the fall semester of 2010 living and studying in Cuba as a student at the University of Havana. He can be reached at

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Announcing Baking for Good's Featured Nonprofit!

Thanks to your votes, Roots of Hope has been selected as Baking for Good's featured nonprofit this month! As a result, we are now displayed on their cause introduction page and their blog! More importantly, every purchase made in our name will give $1 additional to our cause!

For those of you unfamiliar with Baking for Good, it is a social business that makes irresistible baked goods for any occasion and donates 15% of every purchase to the cause/nonprofit of your choice. We partnered up with them several months ago and are proud to have been selected as this month's feature!
Now, on to the good stuff: for the entire month of August use the code ESPERANZA15 at checkout to receive an extra 15% off their order!
Thank you again for your support - it was a close vote and an exciting victory for us!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Triangulating Hope

By Hanny Rivera

The most common reaction when I told friends I was going to be spending the summer conducting ocean research in Bermuda was a wry smile followed by a cliché joke telling me not to get lost in the Bermuda triangle. Though, to be fair the warning was perhaps well warranted, as I did very recently find myself in the middle of the ocean, on a boat that was quite suddenly and inexplicably sinking. Luckily, the rescue response was as quick as the sudden onset of this mishap and the boat was towed safely back to shore. Apart from that rather disconcerting event, the rest of my stay in the Devil’s Islands (an old Spanish name for Bermuda) has been quite paradisaical. The people of Bermuda are extremely friendly, polite, and helpful. The island has a modest charm that is hard to resist. Brightly colored houses line the slopes along the jagged limestone coasts and mopeds zoom around the winding roads that run across this 20 square mile island. Walking around downtown Hamilton, the capital, I see a plethora of shops, marinas, and restaurants. The streets are clean, the roads in prime condition, and the buildings glean in the bright afternoon sun. As I take this all in, my mind wanders to the streets of an earlier island destination, Cuba.

One hears so many stories about life in Cuba that it becomes nearly impossible to discern what is true, what is in the past, and what is plain exaggeration. I found that certain things were exactly as they had been described, others much worse, and few a bit better. Unfortunately though, the reality was far from what I would ever wish it to be. Instead of the pure clean air one imagines when picturing palm trees and a refreshing ocean breeze, there was overwhelming smog from the reconstituted old cars that strut along the deeply contoured streets. The architectural beauty of Havana’s buildings lies crippled, eroded by time, and gravity becomes a new foe while walking beneath balconies and overhangs. What I find most disheartening however, is that most Cubans have for a large part resigned themselves their fate. In their mind the only route to a better life is overseas. The Bermudian national motto is “Where the fates carry us”; Cuba’s is “Patria o muerte” (Homeland or death), yet I can’t help but wonder why it seems as though it is Cubans that have decided to passively follow the winds of fate. As I struggle to understand why a country full of some of the most hard working and culturally rooted people I have ever met has watched their homeland slowly deteriorate, I can only hope the next gust of winds awakens some new passions.

Hanny was born to Cuban parents and moved to Miami, Fl at the age of two. She is currently a senior in college and studying marine biology and oceanography.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Featured Blog from Cuba: Rebeca Monzó Mieres

A Botched Robbery

By Rebeca Monzó Mieres (translated into English by Chabeli Castillo)

A friend from Spain sent me a package in the mail, on July 6th, containing medicines, two cell phones, one for myself and the other one for another person, with their corresponding chargers, three flash drives, and some office supplies.

The package arrived in less than fifteen days. When I was notified of its arrival, I went to pick it up to the Ministry of Communications facilities. At the moment that the package was handed to me, the employee noticed that on the outside of the box protected by a transparent plastic from the TransVal Company, was a loose cell phone battery. After we opened it up to its content, we saw that the two cell phones declared on the original invoice were missing. Only the batteries were left (botched robbery) whose models corresponded to different brands, and the empty box of one of them.

I immediately went to make my claim to the Technical Department of the Postal Zone Six for Services to the Population. There, they also charged me $25.00 pesos. I don't know if that was because of my mismanagement or what.

It is assumed that the mail is inviolable, and especially when the content has been declared to the pertinent authorities. How is it possible that accidentally all packages, including mail, even a simple magazine from a foreign university get here damaged, and come along with the obviously expected note?

Right in that place, an employee, very kindly, informed me that if I wanted to, I could go to Calle 100 and Boyeros, where all the packages arrive before they are processed by the Ministry of Communications, but the problem was that they did not serve the public there. This seemed a joke to me, but the woman told me this very seriously.

I decided to write a letter, to explain this story with every detail, and send it to the Juventud Rebelde (Rebel Youth) Newspaper, which has a section called Acknowledgment of Receipt, where they use to receive and publish this type of complaint. What results to be ridiculous and deplorable is the botch of the robbery.

Original Blog Post: Un Robo Chapucero by Rebeca Monzó Mieres.

Rebeca Monzón Mieres: an autobiography

I was born in Havana, on November the 14th… well, the year does not matter; I will just tell you that I'm from the era of the four - speed record player and the pressure cooker.

I am a teacher, "quasi journalist" (I missed a semester to finish). I worked in the radio for two years and was a diplomat in Paris. I also worked as a salesperson in El Rastro, Madrid. Then, I was Professor of Ceramics and Pottery in the same city and a bureaucrat for many years. Since 1986, I am an “independent artist”, member of the Cuban Association of Artisan Artists. I have done exhibitions in and outside the country. I’m earning a living as an artisan, and now I have a blog because I love to write.

To read some of Rebeca Monzó Mieres's other posts (in Spanish) see below:

Erre con Erre Cigarro

Mujeres Liberadas

Jugando al Capitalismo

Rompiendo el Bloqueo

4 De Julio

Llover Sobre Mojado