Reporting from San Diego / Ivan Garcia

The Institute of the Americas is located on the campus of San Diego State University

There are Cuban dissidents and independent journalists who, since the emigration and travel reform was enacted by Raul Castro in 2013, have already accumulated some trips abroad. This has not been the case with Ivan, who agreed to travel to the United States because it was for a workshop about investigative journalism, organized by the Institute of the Americas in La Jolla, San Diego, California. And he accepted because it was a short stay of one week. We offer the first of three reports sent from San Diego. (Tania Quintera [Ivan’s mother]). 

Monday, November 10

I made the trip from Havana to Miami without problems. The Miami is airport is a city, I had to walk nearly a kilometer from the gate to passport control. At both customs I was treated well. At the Miami airport I met a former neighbor from La Vibora who worked there.

I took advantage of having to wait three hours for the flight to San Diego to buy a laptop at one of the airport stores (I left mine in Cuba because it is defective). It cost me $200, has Windows 8 and an English keyboard.

The flight to San Diego was long. The plane, a little uncomfortable. The seats were too close together. This is the best way I’ve found for airlines to make money: put people in a tube as if they were cattle. Although the service and food were good. Continue reading

Old dissidents in Cuba: Between homelessness and forgetting / Ivan Garcia

Gladys Linares Blanco, age 72

The elderly are the big losers in the timid economic reforms of Cuba’s General-President. Thousands who once applauded Fidel Castro’s long speeches in the Plaza of the Revolution, or fought in the civil wars in Africa, today survive however they can.

There they are. Selling newspapers, peanuts, or single cigarettes. Others have it worse. Senile dementia has overtaken them and they beg for alms or dig through the dumpsters.

But even harder is life for an old dissident. Do the names Vladimiro Roca Antunez, Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello and Felix Bonne Carcassés mean nothing today? In the 90s they were the most active opponents betting on democracy and political and economic freedoms. In the summer of 1997 they drafted a lucid document titled “The Nation Belongs to Everyone.”

For this coherent and inclusive legacy they received verbal and physical violence on the part of the regime and its secret police. And they went to jail. Seventeen years after the launch of “The Nation Belongs to Everyone,” already old and with a litany of ailments, they are barely surviving. Continue reading

Havana: English for Everyone / Ivan Garcia

Britannia School, Havana

In a city of two and a half million inhabitants such as Havana — its streets riddled with potholes, its garbage cans overflowing, its hydraulic networks shattered and a layer of soot covering the facades of its homes and commercial buildings — it seems anachronistic to see language schools teaching British English.

At the corner of Graciela street and Santa Catalina, a four-lane avenue lined with Jacaranda trees in the Tenth of October district twenty-five minutes from the center of the capital, stands a privately-run English language school with courses of study developed by the UK’s prestigious Cambridge University.

It is headquartered in a large house with air-conditioned classrooms and flat screen TVs mounted to the walls. It offers courses for children 4 to 11 years old and adolescents up to age 18. It also offers specialized prep courses for international exams. Continue reading

Crisis Among Cuban Dissidents? / Ivan Garcia

Antonio G. Rodiles, Regina Coyula and Ivan Garcia on a panel about independent journalism in Cuba

The egos and grandstanding are projecting an uncertain outlook within the peaceful opposition in Cuba. It’s like a symphony orchestra without a conductor, where musicians play their own tunes.

It’s not for lack of political programs that Cuban activists cede space. They are overflowing with ideas, projects and platforms aimed at democratic change. Some are more consistent than others.

And although all platforms and political parties are entitled to have their doctrines and programs, the reality in Cuba has demonstrated the ineffectiveness of dissident theses.

Born deformed as a matter of genesis. They have no popular support. There are ever fewer reports about them in the Florida media, the Spanish press and the BBC. Continue reading

Of Jails In Cuba / Ivan Garcia

A "combatant" as Cuban prison guards are called, watches over prisoners working in their new uniforms.

For Saul prison is like his second home. He celebrated his 63rd birthday behind bars, fabricating cement and gravel blocks for a Cuban state enterprise called Provari, which makes everything from bricks, tiles and mattresses to insecticides and sells them for hard currency.

Saul knows the island’s penitentiary map like few do. Since 19 years of age he has been held in the main prisons: La Cabana, Chafarinas in Guantanamo, Boniato in Santiago de Cuba and the jails built by Fidel Castro like the Combinado del Este in Havana, Aguica in Matanzas and Canaleta in Ciego de Avila.

“In all, since I was a prisoner for the first time in 1970 because of the Vagrancy Law. I have worked cutting cane, in construction, making tourism furniture or insecticides with hardly any physical protection,” comments Saul, who has been a free man since April. Continue reading

Well-Being in Cuba Hides Behind a Visa / Ivan Garcia

Cuba-Tourist_Card (1)Although Cecilio, an intensive care doctor, knows it will be hard spending two years in a desolate corner of Africa — a continent now synonymous with Ebola and death — there is no other option at hand for remodeling his dilapidated home in a poor neighborhood of Havana.

Nor does he have the legal tools to file a lawsuit against the Cuban government for paying him only a little more than 25% of his actual salary. Nor does he want to.

“What can I do? Take to the streets and protest unfair labor practices? I am not a hero, not by a long shot. It’s true that the government takes the lion’s share of your salary when you are working in an overseas medical mission. But as doctors we have it so bad here —we earn only sixty to seventy dollars a month — that, with the money we make on these missions, we can solve a lot of our long-standing financial problems. After two years in Africa I will be able to make repairs to my house and build a room for my daughter, who is pregnant,” says Cecilio.

This feeling of not being able to alter one’s fate leads to fierce apathy and a supreme sanctimoniousness, which have been the hallmarks of a wide segment of the population for fifty-five years. Continue reading

The Day the People of Havana Protested in the Streets / Ivan Garcia

1000472_474759539275644_1332749336_n1994 was an amazing year. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the disappearance of the USSR had been the trigger for the beginning in Cuba of the “Special Period in Times of Peace,” an economic crisis which lasted for 25 years.

We returned to  a subsistence economy. The factories shut down as they had no fuel or supplies. Tractors were replaced by oxen. And the power cuts lasted 12 hours a day.

The island entered completely into an era of inflation, shortages and hunger. To eat twice a day was a luxury. Meat, chicken and fish disappeared off the menu. People ate little, and poorly. Malnutrition caused exotic illnesses like beri-beri and optic neuritis. Continue reading

Summer Vacations in Cuba / Ivan Garcia

Photo: Two Brothers campsite in Viñales, Pinar del Río province, by Cuba-Junky.

Raudel and his family have already packed their bags for a six-night stay at a campsite in Mayabeque province near Havana.

They saved some of the money their relatives in Miami send them every month and rented an air-conditioned cabin in Los Cocos along the north shore of Havana.

“It costs us 106 CUC with breakfast. We bring our own food to save money. It’s the best option we could find given our budget,” says Raudel.

Depending on the currency and how much of it you have, there are a variety of vacation options available in Cuba this summer. Having convertible pesos (CUC) — popularly known as chavitos and used by the state to pay monthly bonuses of 10 to 35 CUC to employees in key economic sectors such as tourism, telecommunications and civil aviation — certainly makes a difference.

Others ways of obtaining chavitos include operating a small private business or receiving dollars, euros or other forms of hard currency from relatives overseas.

Continue reading

The Day the People of Havana Protested in the Streets / Ivan Garcia

1000472_474759539275644_1332749336_n1994 was an amazing year. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the disappearance of the USSR had been the trigger for the beginning in Cuba of the “Special Period in Times of Peace,” an economic crisis which lasted for 25 years.

We returned to  a subsistence economy. The factories shut down as they had no fuel or supplies. Tractors were replaced by oxen. And the power cuts lasted 12 hours a day.

The island entered completely into an era of inflation, shortages and hunger. To eat twice a day was a luxury. Meat, chicken and fish disappeared off the menu. People ate little, and poorly. Malnutrition caused exotic illnesses like beri-beri and optic neuritis. Continue reading

Alan Gross: Trapped in a Cold War Tale / Ivan Garcia

Alan Gross (b 1949, NY) before his detention and now.

In the Zamora neighbourhood, next to the Carlos J. Finlay military hospital, in the Marianao Council area, in Eastern Havana, many of the neighbours don’t know anything about the background of Allan Gross, the US contractor, who is stuck there.

It’s a poor district, with little houses, dusty streets and broken pavements. The midday heat finds it deserted. Not even the street dogs can bring themselves to walk over the hot asphalt.

People there take shelter from the mid-day sun inside their houses, or, inside a bare private cafe, put together in a house entrance hall, they talk about the latest TV serial, José Dariel Abreuthe’s 31st home run with the Chicago White Sox, or Barcelona’s next sign-ups.

Around here is where you find out about the latest violent crime which happened the previous night and, if the person you are talking to trusts you, he’ll take you round to the house where one of the neighbours will discreetly sell you some trashy industrial bits and pieces and Chinese cell phones. Continue reading

Chatting with One of Havana’s Entrepreneurs / Ivan Garcia

View from the Tower Restaurant in the Fosca Building

View from the Tower Restaurant in the Fosca Building

Humberto, a seventy-four-year old man, has the personality of both an entrepreneur and a smooth talker. At the moment he is relaxed and happy, willing to chat while having a Heineken and without having to keep track of the time.

And that is what he is doing. In the bar of the La Torre restaurant on the twenty-ninth floor of the Focsa building, Humberto is enjoying a very cold beer as he munches on bites of Gouda cheese and Serrano ham while looking out over the city.

At a height of 400 feet Havana looks like an architectural model. Staring at the intense blue of the sea creates the sensation of a bar floating in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

Up here things look different. There is no awareness of the poor condition of the streets and buildings below or the scramble of thousands of Havana residents looking for food at farmers’ markets in order to be able to prepare a decent meal.

Humberto knows how hard life in Cuba is. “But I like to enjoy myself and to spend money eating well, going out with beautiful women and drinking good-quality beverages,” he says.

Continue reading

What the Soviet Union Left Cubans / Ivan Garcia

Pro-Soviet books by the English Dean Hewlett Johnson (1874-19xx). Photo from Havana, 1945.

To this day, in the universal history books in junior high or high schools in Cuba, the Soviet theme is handled with kid gloves.

They recall its founding father Vladimir Illych Lenin, the epic of the Second World War with its 20 million dead (old data, it was 27 million and more than a few died from a bullet in the neck from their own comrade, or in a dark Gulag), and the selfless help of the USSR in the first years of the olive green revolution.

To Zoraida, a third year high school student and a lover of history, when I ask her about that nation made up of fifteen European and Asian republics, without hardly taking a breath, let loose with a tirade right out of the school books.

“The October Revolution was founded in 1917 by Lenin, and despite the aggression of the western nations, it established itself as a great world power. It was the country with the most deaths in World War II, 20 million (the error persists), and it had to fight alone against the fascist hordes. The United States and its allies were forced to open the Second Front in Normandy, faced with the rapid advance of the Red Army,” she responds with the usual pride of a student who applies herself. Continue reading