Luis Manuel Otero: From Athlete to Dissident Artist / Iván García

Iván García and Luis Manuel Otero, photo by Yanelys Núñez

Ivan Garcia, 15 February 2018 — He’s like a character out of a dark novel by Pedro Juan Gutiérrez. He turned 30 on December 2, 2017, and the life of Luis Manuel Otero has been marked by survival.

He still remembers the 12-hour blackouts when he was a kid, in the middle of the Special Period. The empty, grimy pots and the unmistakable color of El Pilar, his neighborhood in the Havana municipality of Cerro.

The section of Romay Street, from Monte to Zequeira, doesn’t even go 100 yards. It’s narrow and unpaved. The houses are one-story. The only building that had three floors collapsed from lack of maintenance. continue reading

The house of the Otero Alcántara family, at number 57, is typical of early 20th century construction, with tall pillars and large windows. Throughout the night, women are sitting in the doorway, gossiping, while the men take up a collection to buy a liter of bad rum, steal detergent from the Sabatés factory or kill the boredom with a game of baseball in the old Cerro Stadium.

Luis Manuel grew up there, on a poor block full of tenement housing, where drugs and psychotropics are a rite of passage, the young people are abakuás (devotees of the African religion) and problems are solved with guns or machetes.

His father, Luis Otero, used to be a dangerous guy. He always was mixed up in legal problems, and jail became his second home. In prison he became a welder, and the last time he left the Combinado del Este prison, he promised he wouldn’t return.

María del Carmen, the mother of the artist and a construction technician, is a “struggler,” like most Cuban women. When she was pregnant with Luis Manuel, his father was in jail.

“Let’s see what happens,” she said to herself. She acted as mother and father for a long time. Perhaps because of maternal overprotection, she opted to bring him up behind closed doors at home.

Luis Manuel Oteros, a mulatto with an adolescent expression, gestures with his mouth and mentions that to escape from that reclusive life, “I made my own wooden toys. I had this gift from the time I was little. I don’t know who I inherited it from, because there’s no other sculptor or visual artist in my family. I spent hours and hours talking alone. I created scenes and imaginary characters. And from childhood, I vowed to be someone in life,” he said, seated on a wooden stool and leaning against the wall of his studio on San Isidro in Old Havana.

Then he went to school. “I spent primary at Romualdo la Cuesta and secondary at Nguyen Van Troi. I always had a piece of wood in my hands. My grandmother was working in Viviendas, and this was during the years when Cubans decided to emigrate. The State confiscated their property, and many people gave her things, used clothing and household appliances. So we had a washing machine, but I hardly ever had shoes, only one pair that almost always was torn. I went to school wearing hideous boots or plastic shoes,” remembers Otero, and adds:

“I was nine or 10 years old, and like all the kids in the area, we were looking for a way to make money to help out at home, to buy things or go to parties on weekends. A friend and I from the neighborhood decided to remove bricks from buildings and abandoned houses. At that time, recycled bricks were selling for three pesos on the black market, but we sold them for two. One afternoon, my mother caught me doing this and beat me with a rope all the way home.”

Before getting involved with visual arts, Otero spent four or five years training as a mid-distance runner on a clay court at the Ciudad Deportiva.

“I wanted to get ahead. I appreciated the discipline and commitment of sports. I ran the 1,500 and 5,000 meter-dash. I had prospects. I was training hard to reach my goal: to escape from poverty. But in a competition in Santiago de Cuba, in spite of being the favorite, I came in fourth. I wasn’t programmed for losing. So I decided to study and try sculpture and the visual arts.”

In his free time, he and a friend also sold DVDs that he carved from wood, for three convertible pesos in the streets of Nuevo Vedado. “A cane that I made ended up at a workshop that Victor Fowler had in La Vibora. I was 17 and started to become serious about sculpture. I attended many workshops. I always had a tremendous desire to learn, study, better myself. I’m a self-taught artist and a lover of Cuban history. I also slipped into the courses offered by the Instituto Superior de Arte. It was an exciting world.

“When I went home, I went back to reality. Mediating the fights and blows between my father and mother or the problems that my younger brother had,” remembers Luis Manuel, leaning on an ancient VEF-207 radio of the Soviet era, dressed in mustard-colored pants and a white pullover with the faces of the Indian Hatuey, José Martí, Fidel Castro and the peaceful opponent, Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas.

Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara had an exposition for the first time in a gallery in Cerro, on the Avenida 20 de Mayo, in 2011. “I called it, ’Heroes are no burden.’ It was wooden statues of men from the trunk up, without legs. I dedicated it to the soldiers who were mutilated during the war in Angola. I personally invited a dozen combatants who had been in the struggle. I was tense, waiting to see what the reaction would be, but the show was very well received.”

The statue from which the “Heroes are no burden” exposition took its name (Havana Times)

He had already begun his political activism by then. “I had too many questions without answers. I saw that the expectations of society were not taken into account. I had no way out. Everything was a bunch of blah, blah,blah, speeches with no meaning. In private, the majority of artists recognized that things should change. Cuba is crazy. It’s also true that there’s a lot of opportunism in the artistic world. Hustling is normal in this environment. I saw that something should be done,” commented Otero, in a deliberate tone.

And he decided to work on his art with a new focus. December 17, 2014 was a date to remember. “That noon I was amazed to see Raúl Castro and Barack Obama on television. I felt that a new epoch was beginning. That the worst was behind us. That a stage of reconciliation and national reconstruction would begin. That was the feeling among most people: that there would be more negotiations, that finally we would have a better level of life. People had tremendous hope. It was a dream that was contagious.”

But the Regime put obstacles in the way. The greatest optimism passed to the worst pessimism. The resumption of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the U.S. was purely an illusion. More press headlines than concrete initiatives that will improve the quality of life of Cubans.

Luis Manuel Otero remembers that Rubén del Valle, the Vice Minister of Culture, “said, and no one told me, I was still here, that they were going to need several shiploads to be able to sell all the works of Cuban culture. The feeling that many artists had was that in the biennials and events, Americans would start buying valuable artistic pieces. I wanted to make something, to be in fashion. My sin was in being naive.”

Barely one month before, on November 25, 2014, Otero performed downtown on Calle 23, on the Rampa, which was noted in the international press. “At that time I had an American girlfriend. The intention of the performance was to ask her to marry me at a wifi site that had become popular, with no privacy and people screaming and asking for money and other things from their families. I did a stripper act on the corner of L and 23, accompanied by two mariachis. On that occasion, perhaps out of surprise, State Security didn’t interrupt me.”

A little after this, he broke up with her and started courting Yanelys Núñez, who had a degree in art history, and a main piece in her present project at the Museum of Dissidence. Otero is like a box with push-buttons: hyperactive, suggestive and creative. In the middle of a conversation, an idea of his next performance came to him.

“Sometimes I take two or three days tossing around an idea for a work. And it’s in the middle of the night that a concrete idea comes to me. Then I wake up Yanelys and we go to work. With the last one, the Testament of Fidel Castro, it was more or less like that. The George Pompidou Center in Paris asked me for a sample that I was going to make. What occurred to me was the testament of Fidel inside a bottle of Havana Club rum. I implied that at the end of his life, he repented of all the harm he did,” emphasizes Alcántrara.

Right now it’s not at all clear to him. But perhaps before, during or after the succession directed by Raúl Castro, he will start a new project. April, Luis Manuel speculates, could be the month he gets lucky.

Translated by Regina Anavy

The Virtual Wall of the Mexican Embassy in Havana / Iván García

Mexican Consulate in Havana.

Iván García, 8 February 2018 — It was Sofia’s fifteenth birthday. Between her parents and relatives living abroad, they saved $3,700, enough to pay for a week in a four star hotel in Cancún.  After finding out via international media about the brutal violence devastating nearly all the Mexican states, they decided to change their planes and go to Punta Cana, in the Dominican Republic.

“But the Dominican Embassy requires a guarantee from a resident in the country if you want to go there. And we didn’t know anybody there. We decided to give Mexico a try. What a business! In theory, it is a straightforward process. You make an appointment, which is free, on the embassy website  in Havana.  You download a pdf form which you can fill in at home or at an internet room. And you should get an appointment for the interview in two or three weeks from the consulate. continue reading

“But, in practice, the site is blocked. We tried at all hours up to early morning. When we went personally to the embassy, they told us that was the only way you could do it. It was then that we realised the web of corruption that had been set up between the Mexican officials and the Cubans in the area,” we were told by Pedro, father of the fifteen year old, who then added:

“People we know, who travel to Mexico as ’drug mules’, told us don’t even try to do it online, and that the surest way is to pay 300 or 350 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC) to someone living near the embassy, who will guarantee you an appointment and a ten year visa. I wasn’t interested in a ten year visa, or working as a mule. I only wanted a visa for a week for my daughter’s fifteenth. We ended up going to Veradero [in Cuba].”

For the last month, I have been looking into this matter, which doesn’t just affect the Mexican embassy. Some people interviewed have said that the Panama diplomats charge under the counter bribes to Cubans who want to do illegal things.

“You pay $300 or $400.  They like foreign currency, although they also accept convertible pesos. If you pay, you almost certainly will get your visa for ten years, which is fabulous for those of us who are up to this kind of ’business’, as it guarantees you enough time to be a ’mule’. You get back the cost of the bribe on the first or second trip. These kind of bribes are normal in Central America (except Costa Rica), but most of all in Mexico, where corruption is a way of life,” says Alberto, who has been earning his living moving illegal stuff around for the last seven years.

According to the news agencies, in 2016 Cubans spent more than $100 million buying things in Colón, which is a city situated at the entry to the Panama Canal.

But let’s go back to the Mexican Embassy, at 518, Northwest 12th Street and the corner of 7th Avenue, in Havana’s pleasant Miramar area in the west of the capital. An elegantly-dressed lady who says she has worked in a Cuban Ministry, thinks that “it’s a good transaction for both parties: as well as getting you your appointment at the consulate, I can guarantee you a visa for ten years. Do you know how much money they charge you for that type of visa? Seems to me that 300 CUC is cheap.”

When I ask her how much money I need to pay the consular official, she smiles before answering. “Listen honey, are you a journalist, or a policeman?” What you want is a visa. And I am the person who can help you get it.”

A source told me that at least two Mexican officials receive money for illegal activities. “In the embassy surrounds there have been scuffles between people having to wait their turn, but the police deal with it swiftly. There are people who have been swindled and there was a case of a man who complained to the G-2 [Cuban State Security]. But nothing happens to these people. They have diplomatic immunity. The worst that can happen is they are kicked off the island.”

Several times I called the Mexican Embassy on the phone to get their comments. Not one official replied.

Generally speaking, the embassies of first world countries in Cuba don’t have these problems. The government has tried to point fingers at corrupt US officials, but has never been able to show any evidence.

Someone who is friendly with Latino diplomats tells us “The US Embassy runs like an atomic clock. With the Americans, there is no sex. They are incorruptible. Even the ones who pay accounts for $20 have to get them authorised by the government. All the to-do with appointments and visas is dealt with by the embassies and consulates of the Latin American countries, the ones who tell us publicly they are our brothers, but in practice put a thousand and one obstacles in the way to stop Cubans going to their countries. But the Mexican officials are the most corrupt.”

On this site, dozens of  people, giving their names and last names, have left comments about the allegedly corrupt arrangements. That’s what Yirina Delgado did: “I know that you don’t care about my opinion here, because lots of people complain and don’t see any improvements, or even get a reply from the embassy. You are jerking people off  who want to get a visa. The web page works up to the moment when you are due to get it,  and then it is blocked … stop playing around with people and defrauding them.”

As far as she is concerned, says Elizabeth Gutiérrez, “It’s a lack of respect … I can’t get an appointment. They do that so that later they can sell you one on the side.”  Others complain they have been ripped off.

Yolanda, who is a housewife, goes to Mexico every year, where her children and grandchildren are. She makes it clear that the corruption in the Mexican Embassy in Cuba “is nothing new in a country where there is systemic corruption and the most corrupt are the politicians and the police. Once I heard about a mayor who applied for a position, who said publicly, “I have stolen, but not very much.”

Cubans who work as “mules” are ready to pay 300 CUC under the table to get a 10 year visa to Mexico. But, for Sofía, the fifteen year old girl, her parents decided not to go to  Cancún, because they do not accept the corrupt procedures.

Translated by GH

Elections and the Future Cuban Government / Iván García

Source: Durango Press

Ivan Garcia, 1 February 2018 — “What concerns me most right now is to finish building the room for my eldest daughter who plans to give birth to a girl at the end of February,” confesses Eduardo, the warehouse manager of a bakery west of Havana, as drives along in his uncomfortable and tiny Fiat made in communist Poland.

The car, with forty years of service, continues along in the right lane of Infanta street. The old Cerro Stadium, the National Funeral Home and the pediatric hospital of Centro Habana are left behind. Eduardo swerves around the potholes and avoids confrontations with the drivers of city buses, “The real kings of Havana’s jungle roads. They drive with their balls,” he says. And in a neutral voice, he details his priorities in life. continue reading

“In addition to finishing my daughter’s room and giving the house a touchup, I want to continue in my job as a warehouse manager in the bakery, what I’m looking for there is to be able to support my family. And, of course, to have four pesos in my wallet and have a few drinks with my friends and to have a look at a young girl from time to time.”

The current electoral process in Cuba and the predictions about who will be the next president are issues that Eduardo does not care about. “Buddy, I don’t give a rat’s ass. What’s the next one going to solve? What have the neighborhood delegates to the Assembly of People’s Power resolved? The ’Five Heros’ (also called The Spies) were knocked up in prisons in the US for several years. For the Cuban system, that should be enough. But for me, the truth is, they mean nothing to me: whatever position they hold, it’s not going to solve people’s problems.”

Although academics, specialists and Cuban expatriates abroad along with the Florida media follow with a magnifying glass the official protocols of the hermetic olive-green autocracy –those who will elect the new president of the Republic of Cuba — the expectations of ordinary Cubans are extraordinarily low.

I am afraid to disappoint my editor and readers. But in the circle of people where I move, family, friends and neighbors, there is not a hint of optimism about it. Quite the opposite. Astonishing indifference and full-bodied pessimism.

Marta, an  engineer, jokingly says that these issues raise her blood pressure. “Thinking about politics here is just picking a fight for fun. When I go online, I see in the Miami press the coverage they’re giving to the next president. They do analyses, make lists of possible presidential candidates, and wrack their brains about what might happen in the future. Do you want my opinion? Nothing is going to happen. They [the regime] have had all the time in the world to square the circle and they haven’t done it. And nothing has happened, because the people are still forced to ’invent’, trying to survive, and they don’t rebel and won’t rebel, because they designed a government tailored to their interests. It doesn’t matter if they put Mariela Castro in there, Gerardo Hernandez, one of the five spies, or Miguel Díaz-Canel [the current vice president]. They will all seek to perpetuate the Revolution.”

In 2002, in response to the collection of signatures for the Varela Project, an initiative carried out by dissident Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, Fidel Castro held his own ’referendum’ and decreed the “irreversibility of socialism in Cuba,” which was reflected in the Constitution.

The disgust and zombie spirit of a large segment of citizens, is not an impediment for Cubans because they don’t have their own dreams and want to live in a modern nation where the people are soveriegn.

For Germán, a retiree who survives by collecting money for the illegal bolita (lottery), “talking about elections is a joke in bad taste, because most of the population can’t directly elect the president of the country. He is elected by 600 deputies, all members of the Communist Party, the only one there is. ”

On March 11, the citizenry will simply ratify the 605 candidates (one candidate per position) for deputy to the 9th Legislature of the National Assembly of People’s Power, people’s whose names have already been posted. Then, those deputies will elect a new president.

The 605 deputies were proposed in the Municipal Assemblies of People’s Power held on January 21. In the ’general elections’ that will take place on Sunday, March 11, around 8 million Cubans must ratify them. And on Thursday, April 19, when the National Assembly is constituted, the 605 deputies will be in charge of electing the head of the Council of State and other senior officials.

As has been published, 40.6 percent of the 605 deputies are blacks or mixed race; more than 86 percent have completed higher education; 53.22 percent are women; 13.2 percent are between 18 and 35 years old and the average age of the deputies is 49. But adding more ’dark’ faces, summoning a greater number of women and showing a youthful retouch does not democratize the Island’s legislature.

Raúl Modesto Castro Ruz, presumably, will maintain his position as first secretary of the Communist Party and although he said that state positions could be held only until the age of 75 (Castro II turns 87 on June 3), a group of elders called the “historical leaders” remain on the list of candidates for deputies, such as José Ramón Fernández, born in 1923, Faure Chomón (1929), Antonio Lussón (1930), Ramiro Valdés (1932), José Ramón Balaguer (1932), Joaquín Quintas Solá (1938), Ramón Espinosa (1939) and Leopoldo Cintra Frías (1941), among others.

“On the island, people do not trust their parliament. Since the first National Assembly was constituted in 1976 (the 1st Legislature, 1976-1981, had Blas Roca as president, Raúl Roa as vice president and José Arañaburu as secretary), all the votes have been unanimous. The parliamentarians do not speak frankly about the real problems or the aspirations of the people. They are buffoons,” says Luis, a private taxi driver.

The Cuban electoral soap opera is designed for the outside world. A wave of analysis, opinions and forecasts generates press coverage and expectations in the United States and the European Union, geographical areas where, in the not too distant future, the regime aspires to maintain or create fundamental alliances.

The intention is to sell hypothetical economic reforms, without giving in to the political principles of an autocratic government. The main strategy of the presidential relay is to try to make the Castro surname invisible and negotiate the dismantling of the embargo with the US Congress, offering possibilities for investment and trade.

We observe that Colonel Alejandro Castro Espín, the typical bad cop, is not among the candidates for deputies. They chose to elect his sister Mariela, a kind of liberal face of the Cuban revolution.

“The game is to keep a Castro holding the strings, but inside the sewers of power.  Outside, the pools are varied. But those who know the Cuban reality well, know that if anything has characterized Castroism, it never improvises and never leaves the ends untied,” affirms a former university professor of political science.

Until proven otherwise, everything indicates that Miguel Diaz-Canel will be the next president, handpicked by Raul Castro and the military leadership. The interesting thing will be to know how far his autonomy will reach.

It could be a copy of Dmitri Medvedev in Russia. Or Osvaldo Dorticos, who after the resignation of Manuel Urrutia, served as President of Cuba from July 17, 1959 to December 2, 1976. A leader who was nothing more than a chair warmer.

The Other Fidel Castro / Iván García

Fidel Castro Diaz-Balart as an adult and as a child with his father, Fidel Castro. Taken from Daily Express

Ivan Garcia, 6 February 2018 —  A silent police patrol began to search passersby they considered suspicious. When they saw it, the illegal tomato sellers quickly hid their merchandise on the staircase of a building in Havana’s Vibora neighborhood at Acosta and Diez de Octubre. An old woman, a regular seller of the newspaper Granma who was, at that moment, walking in the other direction, continued announcing the news of the day, “Fidelito, son of the Comandante, killed.”

Those waiting at the bus stop for the P-3 began to pass on the rumors: “He hanged himself, I heard it on good faith from a friend who works at CIMEQ,” said a woman dressed as a nurse. A fat, bald man had another theory: “On Miami television they said he threw himself off the fifth floor of the clinic where he was admitted.” A tall black man in a mechanic’s overalls insisted that “he shot himself, because all of Papá’s children have a stamp (gun).” continue reading

In a ramshackle barbershop, the suicide of Fidel Castro Díaz-Balart was the perfect pretext for a discussion.

“They say in Granma that he was killed because he suffered from a depressive crisis. Just imagine it, if a guy who did not lack beef, dollars and gasoline for his car car is given a slap, what can you expect from people who every day have to jump through hoops just to put food on the table,” said a young man waiting his turn for a haircut.

The barber did not hold back, saying: “Gentlemen, happiness does not come from money or power. Maybe the man was miserable. They say that Fidel brought him to live with him as a child and separated him by force from his mother. Or maybe he killed himself because he missed his father. Who knows.”

Habaneros on the street were making up conjectures or were simply not interested in the tragedy. Rodolfo, a guy who’s nearly six feet tall, did not care about the reason “Fidelito had to leave this world. When I die, none of them will cry for me.” He ended with a blunt phrase: “Everyone who commits suicide is a fool.”

In the national medical literature, suicide, a taboo subject on the island, is called ‘Intentionally Self-Inflicted Assault’. An article published in Cubanet in July 2016, reported data from the National Directorate of Statistical Medical Registers of Health in Cuba: “In 2015 in Cuba there were 1,492 such deaths, with a rate of 13.3 [per 100,000], a slight increase compared to 2014, when there were 1,454 suicides, for a rate of 13.0.” According to statistics, Cuba has one of the highest suicide rates in the Americas and since 1969 suicide has been one of the ten leading causes of death in the country.

Perhaps people are not as happy as the regime’s propaganda suggests. Although from the beginning of the nation, Cubans have committed suicide. “Whether for religious or patriotic reasons, there have always been those who have preferred to leave the environment rather than face reality. There is also a tendency to pyromania. On a night in January 1868, the Bayamese preferred set fire to their city rather than let it fall into the hands of the Spaniards. They did the same in Guáimaro in 1869 and in Las Tunas in 1876. Some women, faced with a disappointment in love, often choose to do away with themselves. Others decide to kill their husband for his constant abuses or infidelities. Men prefer to hang themselves or throw themselves into the sea,” says Luis, an ethnologist.

For the writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante, the death of Martí in an absurd skirmish in Dos Ríos, on May 19, 1895, was a political suicide. In his opinion, the man Cubans call the ’Apostle’ was misunderstood by several Mambises chiefs. One of the most famous suicides in the Republican era was that of Eduardo Chibás, leader of the Orthodox Party, who on August 5, 1951, shot himself after he finished a speech on a weekly radio program. He died eleven days later, he was only 44 years old.

The Fidelista revolution increased the numbers of suicides for ideological reasons. The list of ’olive-green’ suicide victimes includes, among others, the commander Félix Pena (1959), Nilsa Espín, sister of Raul Castro’s wife Vilma Espín, and her husband Rafael Rivero (1965); Onelio Pino, captain of the yacht Granma (1969), Javier de Varona, close associate of Fidel Castro (1970), Eddy Suñol, vice minister of the Ministry of the Interior (MININT) (1971), Alberto Mora, Minister of Foreign Trade (1972), Rafael del Pino, member of the 26th of July Movement (1977), Haydée Santamaría, Casa de las Américas Director (1980), Osvaldo Dorticós, former President of Cuba (1983), Rafael Álvarez, Finance Director of Minint (1989), Enrique Sicard, Department Head in MININT (1989), Rodrigo García, finance minister (1994) and Carlos Figueredo, colonel del MININT (2009).

That they are known, there were two failed attempts of self-elimination, that of Augusto Martínez Sánchez, Minister of Labor, in 1964, and in 1994 that of Jorge Enrique Mendoza, director of the newspaper Granma. Others died in strange circumstances, such as José Abrantes, former interior minister (1991), Manuel ’Barbarroja’ Piñeiro (1998), brothers Celia María and Abel Enrique Hart Santamaría (2008) and division general Pedro Mendiondo and his in-laws ( 2013).

The case of Fidel Castro Díaz-Balart is a psychological study. “He never led a normal existence. He lived until he was ten years old with his mother. And then Fidel ignored parental authority, which in normal conditions favors the raising of children by the mother.

“In an interview with a former bodyguard, I read that Fidel barely paid attention to his first son. I am sure that Fidelito saw him as a god. And he imitated it in his gestures and letting his beard grow. But in his childhood and youth he did not have his father’s attention, he grew up in his uncle Raúl’s house, under the pseudonym of José Raúl.

“It is true that he could travel to Spain to see his mother, Mirta Díaz-Balart, but that dramatic existence could take its toll. A depressive state can develop at any time. Fidel Castro may have the historical merits that they want to point out, but I don’t believe he was a good father,” a Havana psychiatrist pointed out.

People who knew the eldest son of Castro I, agree in describing him as a distant human being, but educated and affable. Manuel, an engineer who worked with Fidelito in the ’80s in Juraguá, says that “because of his character, he did not look like a Cuban, he did not like bachata [music] and fucking or sitting down to drink beer with friends or colleagues. He gave the impression of being shy, always seemed distracted. He knew who he was, he did not forget the weight of his surnames and I think he liked to exploit the mysticism that surrounded him. But professionally he was very well educated.”

The failure of the Cienfuegos Atomic Energy project in 1992 provoked the wrath of Fidel Castro, who ousted him from office. The Juraguá Center, with Soviet technology, was considered the signature work of 20th Century Cuba. The regime buried more than a billion dollars in its construction. That year, after the disappearance of the USSR, Castro stopped the project. Twenty-six years later, the ruins of the nuclear reactor remain standing, like a phantasmagorical relic of the Cold War.

The plague of excrement and putrefying animals is hardly mitigated by the smell of the sea that breaks over the nearby coast. The Nuclear City, the name of the town where supposedly Soviet engineers and Cuban workers would reside, is a conglomeration of crappy buildings with construction defects. People live from what falls off the back of a truck. Selling queso blanco, shrimp stolen the night before from a state company or placidly drinking homemade rum.

Richard, a welding technician, worked at the Juraguá Center and recalled that “the man (Fidelito) visited the works every day. It was even rumored that he had a house in Cienfuegos. The failure of the work was not just his fault. They were stealing hand over fist there. And there was no experience in such a complex specific construction, that’s why the pace of constructive was super slow. Luckily, they closed Juraguá. If it were working it would have been a time bomb.”

With Raúl Castro’s rising to the presidency, his nephew regained prominence, being appointed scientific adviser to the Council of State. But his political career continued in the background. Perhaps one day they will know the causes that led him to commit suicide, apparently throwing himself off a high floor of the Personal Security Clinic, located in the Kohly District, in the former Alturas de Almendares residential area.

The truth is that Fidel Castro’s eldest son grew up in a complicated environment. With a textbook narcissist for a father, more determined to go down in history than in raising his children. And with a mother living at a distance in Madrid. And maternal cousins who from Miami openly declared themselves enemies of their father and his revolution.

Despite his academic career, people only approached him for a selfie because of his resemblance to Fidel. It was never him. He was a mannequin. He was predestined to sit on a psychiatrist’s couch.

Note: The remains of the nuclear physicist Fidel Castro Díaz-Balart, 68, the eldest son of Fidel Castro, known as Fidelito, who committed suicide on Thursday, February 1, rest in the pantheon of the Cuban Academy of Sciences in the Cemetery of Columbus, in Havana. On the discreet black marble pantheon, on Monday, February 5, several wreaths were seen, mostly white roses, from his children and grandchildren, from his mother, Mirta Díaz-Balart and his sisters and nephews through his mother’s line. The wake was held at the headquarters of the Academy of Sciences of Cuba, of which he was vice president at the time of his death, according to several of the attendees who reported it on social networks.

The Cuban media, all state, did not publish anything about the wake and burial, organized privately by the family, as had been announced in the official news about the death. The only public expression from his paternal relatives came on Friday, February 2, from his cousin Mariela Castro Espín, daughter of Raúl Castro, Fidelito’s uncle. In her Twitter and Facebook accounts she thanked those who expressed sympathy.

Castro Díaz-Balart, the only son of Fidel Castro’s marriage with Mirta Díaz-Balart, also served as scientific advisor to the Council of State, Cuba’s highest governing body. (Information taken from Martí Noticias.)

Jose Marti: A Hostage of the Cuban Regime / Iván García

Pinilla illustration. Taken from Diario Las Américas.

Ivan Garcia, 29 January 2018 — At the foot of a small stairway, at the entrance of the former Vibora Institute of Secondary Education which is now René O’Reiné High School, a group of students smoke one cigarette after another and argue loudly about football.

They are sitting on a cement floor and lean their backs against the base of a relatively ordinary bronze statue of José Martí, whose image is commonly present in many Cuban schools.

When you ask them about the life and work of the hero — born on 28 January 1853 in a modest two-story house on Paula Street in Old Havana, and shot to death on 19 May 1895, in a skirmish in Dos Ríos, Jiguaní, today one of the thirteen municipalities in Granma province — young people turn on their ’autopilot’ and begin to recite the rote story they learn at school. continue reading

Yosbel, in the tenth grade, says “Martí is the most important Cuban hero. He was the one who taught us to think, the intellectual author of the assault on the Moncada barracks and the precursor of the Cuban revolution.”

Joshua, in the eleventh grade, confirms what Yosbel expresses and adds: “If Fidel had been born at that stage, he would have been like Martí and the rest of the Mambises chiefs. If Martí had been born now, he would be like Fidel and Raúl. ” He says it as if he were reciting a poem.

Do you admire José Martí? Have you read Martí’s works? I ask them and I ask them to speak frankly, not as if they were at a school assembly. They smile, they look at each other, and confess that they have hardly read him.

“What I remember,” says Yosbel, “I read Rosa’s Little Shoes and some stories from the book The Golden Age. But I’m not a fan of Martí. They tell you so much about him on the news and the newspapers, then they repeat the same jabbering at school, that you learn it by heart, but you do not enjoy it. It seems that Martí was not a human being, but an extraterrestrial.”

If you speak in confidence with young people and even with adults who, during their student years met a marble Martí, distant and perfect, the figure of the National Hero does not move them.

Maybe he’s repeating rumors he heard or it’s what he thinks, but Diego, a teller in a bank, says that “Martí was a spider captain. He talked and wrote a lot, but when it came time to use his gun, he was a failure. If the press presented him to me as a guy who had his faults, perhaps I would appreciate him more. But they want to sell you to a person who in 42 years of life did more things than an old man of one hundred years.”

When doctrinal propaganda is abused in the eagerness to build a myth, there is a risk of rejection in a population already stunned by the excess of pamphleteering propaganda.

Carlos, a sociologist, believes that “the sanctification of José Martí began after his death. In all cultures, it is typical to sketch a portrait of your heroes distant from their real lives. About Martí there is a suspicion that he had extramarital relations and according to recent studies he had a daughter with Carmen Mantilla. He was not a skilled warrior in the use of the machete and the rifle. Nor was he a military strategist.

“But, until proven otherwise, he is the Cuban with the greatest set of skills we have had. A humanist and an intellectual of the highest level. His untimely death generated a kind of feeling of guilt among the Mambises leaders, who, whether by dissension, envy or ambition for power, rejected Marti for not being a seasoned fighter like them.

“But it is the revolution of Fidel Castro that has fiercely manipulated his figure, in an attempt to weave a false theory of revolutionary unity. With regards to Martí, not only has the government turned him into a hostage, but the dissidence and the anti-Castro exile have done the same. He is the hero of both sides. The question we must ask ourselves is whether we venerate the Apostle in an authentic way. Or does he only serve as a stepping stone for our political campaigns.”

Luisa, a university student, says that “like every year, to remember the birth of Marti, we will march from the Staircase of the University to the Fragua Martiana (located at Hospital and Vapor in Centro Habana, now a museum). We do not go spontaneously, it is rather a commitment to the FEU (University Student Federation) and the UJC (Young Communist League). We have a good time and some leave the march and go home.”

In Cuba, prudery reaches the level of a work of art. Although intellectuals, like the filmmaker Fernando Pérez, in his film El ojo del canario (The Eye of the Canary) (ICAIC, 2010) tried to de-sanctify José Martí, the official narrative continues to use the hero in a simplistic and dogmatic way.

Martí was never a Marxist. In his work he left evidence of the opposite. Knowing the authentic Martí, like Cuban traditions, we have a love of country, the national culture and the idiosyncrasy of its people, which should be something spontaneous and long-winded. Without guidelines or political scripts, Cubans should feel motivated to read about the lives of our heroes and to cultivate respect for our traditions in a natural way.

Those born on the Island who reside in other lands and care about their country, always go to sleep “with Cuba under their pillow.” And from afar they have learned to appreciate the colossal dimensions of José Martí.

On the 165th anniversary of the birth of the man Cubans call ’The Apostle’, I remember that warm afternoon in November 2016, when I visited Ybor City in the city of Tampa with a group of friends. We laid a wreath at the foot of the statue located in Friends of José Martí Park, inaugurated in February 1960, a short distance from the old tobacco factory, where Martí harangued his countrymen and collected money for the necessary war of independence. Later, as we walked through the cobbled streets, we met an 85-year-old man who travels from California to Tampa each January, to honor the Master.

That is the Martí that should prevail among Cubans. The one that nobody has imposed to us. One that rises freely.

Cuban Emigration Carries On / Iván García

Photo from El Nuevo Herald.

Ivan Garcia, 26 January 2018 — When it seems that all the doors for emigration to a first world country are closed, that the blue Cuban passport is not welcome at most border crossings, and putting yourself into a boat to get to the United States is not just useless but suicidal, Mayra, a university student, puts together her emigration strategy spending many hours surfing different websites looking for a gap through which she can squeeze out.

Between 1962 and 1994, the traditional way for Cubans wanting to leave Cuba illegally was to build a flimsy wooden boat able to survive the strong currents of the Straits of Florida, drop anchor, and be rescued by a US coastguard, which automatically got you US residence. continue reading

Following the summer of 1994, with the migration agreements signed by Bill Clinton and Fidel Castro, they tried to impose some order and security for illegal maritime immigration. They agreed to approve 20,000 family reunification visas a year. And, to put a brake on the exodus of the boat people, although they didn’t know how many people had drowned and were lying in the Straits of Florida, the Washington officials had the idea for the “wet foot/dry foot” policy, a rather cynical version of American benevolence.

If a boat is captured in the open sea, the people are sent back to Cuba with an undertaking that they will not be put in jail. If they have managed somehow to enter US waters, then bingo!, they open the revolving door to get into paradise.

In January 2017, Barack Obama repealed the wet foot/dry foot policy. Following the island authorities’ actions to make migration more flexible, starting in winter 2013, Cubans started to arrive by plane, as well as by sea or land (crossing borders).

Between 2013 and 2017, if we add to the 80,000 Cubans who emigrated with pre-approved paperwork to join their families (20,000 each year), those who travelled thousands of miles from Ecuador and Central America to the US border, around 800,000 Cubans emigrated from their country in the last four years.

There began to appear in the social networks instructions on how to avoid dangerous journeys , and dozens of tricks on how to hide your money. It all started in cyber cafes or wifi hotspots in parks in all the provinces of the island. Future emigrants got in touch with people-traffickers or middlemen, who advised them about the journey.

People began to burn their bridges. They sold their houses, cars, motorbikes, and domestic appliances to get money, or they saved what they made running small private businesses. In many cases, their relatives sent them the money through Western Union.

But, after January 2017, the overland marathon to the United States stopped. Donald Trump, a record-breaking tweeter, withdrew sixty per cent of the consular officials, because of the supposed acoustic attacks on US diplomatic staff located in Havana.

Now, those people wanting to emigrate to join their families have to go via Colombia, at much greater cost. In one year, the number of Cubans getting into the US fell dramatically. More than 50,000 Cubans entered the US in the 2016 fiscal year and, according to the State Department, in 2017 the new policy reduced informal immigration from Cuba by 64% in comparison with 2016.

But thousands of Cubans have not stopped wanting to emigrate. Three times a week, Mayra, the student, trawls the internet, looking for “a scholarship or summer school, anything, which lets me go abroad, preferably to a first world country, and then weigh up the chances of moving temporarily or permanently.”

The Cuban academic world is like the sinking of the Titanic. To the tune of the songs in praise of Fidel Castro, and while the boat is sinking, hundreds of professors, postgrads, doctors and scientists, are individually trying to get an internship or attend a conference organised by a higher education organisation abroad.

“It’s every man for himself. One way or another, everyone who has contacts calls them up to get a scholarship or a post in a foreign university. The ideal is the highest level US academic network. But a place in a German, Swiss or Nordic university isn’t bad either. Or in Chile with its economic stability, which is fashionable. Also Mexico, with all its problems of violence, has for many years been the destination for many Cuban intellectuals and university professors,” comments an academic.

Information, cybernetics, software and automatic control specialists are also creating opportunities for personal development and distance-based work contracts. Those without university degrees are also looking for shortcuts.

That’s what Luis Mario, an auto mechanic, is doing. In his opinion, “although the pickings have slimmed down, and emigrating the the States is a pipe-dream, you have to keep looking worldwide for other viable options for getting out of Cuba. I am looking at four possibilities: a two year work contract in Uruguay, the Dominican Republic or in Chile, because the authorities in Chile are pretty easy-going on the Cubans.  And, if none of those three works out, the fourth option is marry a foreign woman who lives in Kansas.”

The average Cuban doesn’t let himself be pigeonholed with a specific endpoint. Obviously, Miami or Madrid are ideal. “But, if you can’t get into the United States, look somewhere else. Spain isn’t a bad place, because, although Cubans going there are illegals, the immigration police concentrate on the Africans and Arabs. You can get to Spain via Italy. You buy a package trip for a week in Italy, and the embassy issues you with a month’s European visa, and then you go to Madrid or Barcelona by train. Spain is hot, but it’s ten times better than Cuba”, says Silvio, from Pinar del Rio, now living for a year with his wife in Valdedebas in Madrid.

Yeni, an ex-prostitute, on vacation in Havana, says “what every prostitute dreams of is getting out of Cuba. Thanks to my Chilean boyfriend, six months ago I set up in Valparaiso.”

You can find Cubans as far away as Canberra, the capital of Australia, or in a kibbutz in Israel. “The problem is adapting to the languages, food and customs. I have been in Qatar seven years, and I can tell you I wouldn’t change it for any other country in the world”, says Cesar, from Bayamo, Oriente.

Although you can of course choose where you go, thousands of Cubans planning to emigrate prefer the United States. And one city, Miami. The same culture, the same climate, and 2.5 million countrymen talking at the tops of their voices in the Publix supermarkets. And if you stop at the Key West lighthouse, some say, you can smell Havana.

Translated by GH

The Dollar Strengthens In Cuba In Anticipation Of Currency Unification / Iván García

Source: América Tevé.

Ed. Note: This article talks about Cuba’s two currencies, the Cuban peso and the Cuban convertible peso, and the potential ‘unification’ of the two currencies. The Cuban peso is also called “national money” and by the acronym “CUP.” The Cuban convertible peso (“CUC”) only came into use in 1994. It is not convertible outside the country and so has no ‘market-based’ exchange rate in world currency markets. The CUP is officially pegged at 24 per CUC. The dollar/CUC exchange rate is officially one-to-one but the actual official exchange rate varies according to exchange fees and taxes applied to the transaction, as discussed in the article; the unofficial exchange rate varies according to the vagaries of the underground market. The Cuban government has promised, for years, to unify the currencies, but has not yet done so.

Iván García, 18 January 2018  — In the illegal world of the foreign exchange market on the Island, any rumor or leaking of information rings alarms. In addition to taking advantage of the gaps that cause the artificial state exchange rate for the U.S. dollar, an astute loan shark is always attentive to fluctuations in the exchange rates.

Ignacio, a guy who wears retro sunglasses, tight jeans and low-cut sports shoes, is one of those who takes advantage of the most minimal information.

“I’m romancing the manager of a bank. And some days ago she told me that there are movements in the bullpen. Probably before April 19 — the supposed date of Raúl Castro’s retirement — the government will execute the unification of the currency. continue reading

The girl told me that already there have been several meetings, and in them it was said that people with bank accounts wouldn’t lose money after the financial adjustments. Nor would those who prefer to keep their money at home. For them they would pay 24 Cuban pesos for every convertible peso, but only up to a certain amount (it’s said 7 million CUC). Those who have their deposits in dollars can exchange them at two pesos per dollar.”

With this unconfirmed information, Ignacio, along with several friends involved in clandestine exchange operations, started to buy the dollar at 0.97 CUC. The Central Bank of Cuba pays 0.87 CUC, justifying the Castro brothers’ tax under the pretext of the U.S. embargo.

But it’s a longer story. After the arrival of the bearded Fidel Castro, the exchange of the dollar and other hard currency was converted into an absurdity that distorted the national economy.

Before 1959, the dollar had an exchange rate of one for one with the Cuban peso.

“It was supported by a growing productivity, a vigorous economy and a powerful private empresarial elite. Fidel took this exchange rate as a reference and kept it for a time. Meanwhile, the Cuban economy was stumbling, because of the “blockade,” bad strategies of the managers or systemic failures caused by an economic plan that was copied from the Soviet Union. If they would have let the dollar float against the peso, in 1970, for example, a dollar would have been worth 50 Cuban pesos, at least. The illegal exchange market, in an empricial way, moves in accord with the law of supply and demand of the dollar. With greenbacks being prohibited until 1993, these financial operations were very dangerous: If the police caught you, you could go to jail for three to five years,” says Hiram, an ex-officer of the Central Bank.

Julio Antonio, an older gentleman who has spent four decades in the business of buying and selling hard currency, above all the dollar, adds more details:

“In the ’80s, they called the money changers jineteros (hustlers). On the streets of Vedado, and on beaches like Varadero and Santa María del Mar, east of Havana, we were buying dollars directly from the few tourists who came to Cuba. At that time, a peso was worth four dollars. The State was buying them one for one. And many foreigners, so that their money would go further, weren’t selling them to us. When the Special Period arrived in the ’90s the dollar shot up and was selling at one dollar for 150 pesos. Later, the government fixed it at 24 pesos. But we were paying under the table one or two on top of that, because the people going on internationalist missions in Venezuela, Ecuador and South Africa, among other countries, needed dollars to buy stuff cheap and then resell it in Cuba. We have always been two steps ahead of the State’s exhange rate.”

In the autumn of 2005, Fidel Castro, punched a table in anger, because the U.S. Treasury Department had detected a Cuban account with 5 billion dollars in the Swiss bank UBS, supposedly for exchanging old bills for new ones, and he resolved to decree a “revolutionary” tax on the money of Enemy Número Uno.

The tax rate was 20 percent, lowered to 10 percent when Raúl Castro began governing.

“If a dollar cost 80 cents, on the street it was being bought at 90. Now that the government buys it at 87 cents, under the table it’s bought at 90, at least [on the street]. It depends how many dollars are in circulation. But the stable non-official rate is 95 cents, although at certain times, it goes up to 97 and 98, since there is a strong demand from the “mules” who travel to Central America, Mexico or Russia. With the rumor that is being spread, I assure you that when the two monies are unified, the dollar will be worth 10 or 15 pesos. And I might be short,” Ignacio analyzes.

Dagoberto, licensed in tourism, considers that “this exchange rate, in addition to being false, is counterproductive. This is reflected in expenditures by tourists. The ones who come to Cuba spend on average $655 [USD]. Those who go to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic spend more than $1,200, almost double. One reason is that they drive up the prices for tourists. To this, add the fact that in Cuba’s hard currency shops everything is too expensive, with taxes between 240 and 400 percent. The ideal, to attract more dollars, euros, pounds or Swiss francs, is to adjust the money to a real reference.”

According to a source at a branch of the Banco Metropolitano, “Since July they have been postponing the contracts with State enterprises, whether they are in hard currency or the national money. It’s a sign that monetary unification is on the way. At the latest, before 2018 is over. It’s noticeable in the current private accounts. Many clients are keeping their money in pesos, since even though they’ve been told that they won’t be affected by the unification, there are always fears and prejudices in the population.”

For experienced loan sharks, “the best way to keep savings or monetary earnings of a private business is in dollars or euros, jewels, preferably of gold, and works of art. What’s coming looks ugly. An increasing inflation and more money than products to buy. The Cuban economy is in a bad way,” predicts Julio Antonio.

Financial experts say that if you want to apply a reasonable economic strategy, the distortions caused by the dual currency ought to come to an end. What’s not clear is what will happen afterwards.

Translated by Regina Anavy

The "Worms" and the Future of Cuba / Iván García

Cuban rafters. Taken from “The Positive Scum,” an article by Ricardo Riverón published in On Cuba Magazine on April 9, 2017.

Ivan Garcia, 19 January 2018 — Ana Gálvez, now 72, spent eight months picking sweet potatoes, yuccas and squash in a state agricultural enterprise outside of Havana before she was allowed to leave for the United States in 1971.

“They treated us as if we were prisoners or slaves. The food was disgusting. We had to work twelve or thirteen hours a day. Then, it was the only way that the dictatorship would sign the ’freedom card’,” recalled Gálvez, with tears in her eyes, sitting in the lobby of a hotel in Miami, a stone’s throw from the international airport.

In Florida, she became an executive with a renewable energy firm and today has as storehouse of knowledge that could help in the future reconstruction of the Cuban energy sector. continue reading

“Cuba has all the conditions necessary to stop using fossil fuels in a decade or less. Based on the sun, the winds and the waters of the Atlantic Ocean or the Caribbean Sea — because the rivers are not very large — the Island would have clean and sustainable energy that would contribute to its development. To this we could add the use of hybrid transport, running on electricity or cane alcohol,” said Ana optimistically.

But when I asked her, “if the laws changed would you return to rebuild the country?” she emphatically shook her head, No. “It would have to be with certain requirements, among them a public apology from the regime for its deplorable attitude towards the Cubans who one day decided to emigrate and live in a democracy. It is the first thing I would demand to return and work for my country. ”

Given the current dilemma of Cuba, trapped in a stagnant economic crisis, chronically unproductive, with brakes on private work and the creation of small- and medium-sized businesses, with social tension due to the poor administration of resources, along with a housing deficit exceeding one million homes, a low birth rate, an accelerated aging of the population, miserable salaries and a qualitative decline of education and public health, an honorable exit would be forge an agreement with the diaspora and, using the skills and talents of everyone, begin to rebuild the foundations of the national economy.

Exiles like Ana Gálvez or the famous musician and composer Jorge Luis Piloto, who, in order to emigrate from Cuba, had to accept the regime’s degrading treatment, deserve an apology. And there are others whom Fidel Castro expelled from their homeland for thinking differently and opposing the state of affairs.

Miami, Autumn 2014. While Jorge Luis Piloto in his Mercedes Benz was traveling with me to the new Marlins baseball stadium through the tunnel built after the expansion of the port, I asked him, too, if certain conditions were met would he return to reform his country. The answer was not immediate. He kept driving, concentrating on the traffic.

In the 70s, Piloto lived with his mother in a small room with a makeshift platform “mezzanine,” a bathroom and collective kitchen in a building in danger of collapse in the Pilar neighborhood, in Havaa’s Cerro municipality. The authorities did not consider him a “reliable” guy: he wore his hair long, he always carried a guitar in his hand and was a lover of the Beatles.

He had arrived in the capital at age 15 from Cárdenas, Matanzas. And although in Havana one of his own song’s won an award in the Adolfo Guzmán Competition, in 1980 he decided to leave with the Mariel Boatlift.

Fidel Castro, offensively, called the more than 125,000 Cubans who emigrated through the Port of Mariel that year “scum.” Earlier, he had called those who left “worms.” In 1980, that terrible year, the neo-fascist acts of repudiation emerged. Popular mobs harassed you, shouting all kinds of offenses and slander, they threw eggs at you and more than one person beat you.

Piloto experienced it first hand. After pondering his response to my question he told me that he had no plans to return, but if one day Cuba bet on democracy, he would help in any way he could. Recently, in a card for the new year, Jorge Luis wrote: “In 2018 may we can travel to Cuba without asking for permission and with a process on the way to democratization, but with social justice for all. The Cuba that [José] Martí dreamed of.”

Every time I’ve been in Miami, I’ve chatted with numerous compatriots. Most have good jobs and have built successful careers. I ask them all the same question: would you return to rebuild Cuba?

Ninety-five percent, after explaining their reasons, answer No. Journalists like Osmín Martínez and Iliana Lavastida, who have managed to turn a boring conservative newspaper like Diario Las América into an attractive medium, do not have plans to return to Cuba either.

Only those politically committed confessed that they would leave everything behind and return to rebuild the land where they, their parents and grandparents were born. This is the case for the poet and journalist Raúl Rivero.

Almost all of the Cubans who have triumphed in Miami would help from a distance. A praiseworthy thing, but in a de-capitalized nation like Cuba today, it feels like very little. Because the country will need more than professional and financial help and powerful infrastructure investments. It will also need labor. People with experience in sectors such as construction and architecture: with few exceptions, everything built in Cuba over the last sixty years has been built badly.

It will also require people with knowledge in public administration, democratic political institutions, specialists in education, agriculture, telecommunications and other technical and scientific branches.

It is probably the best option — perhaps the only one — to involve the olive-green dictatorship. Negotiate with the emigration, especially the one with the most economic power. Open, without conditions, the doors back to their homeland. Stop treating emigrated Cubans as just a source of remittances and encourage them to participate in the national reconstruction.

Despite the triumphalist discourse of the regime, the ship is taking on water. It would be a crime to let it end up sinking without trying to find solutions.

Nobody is more interested in the fate of Cuba than Cubans. Although those who left do not want to return to stay.

Cuba: The Devotion to Saint Lazarus / Iván García

The plastic artist Luis Manuel Otero shortly before being arrested by the political police. Taken from Martí Noticias.

Ivan Garcia, 18 December 2017 — On the night of Thursday, 14 December at night, after fifteen hours on the road under a copious downpour, from Sagua de Tánamo, in Holguín, province 530 miles northwest of Havana, in an old General Motors truck from the 1950s, Erasmus and his wife arrived in Havana ready to fulfill their promise to Saint Lazarus, who is as popular among Cubans as the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, Cuba’s patron saint.

“We live in a neighborhood called Ocapuna. My wife had breast cancer that thanks to the ’old man’ she overcame it. I was threatened with twelve years for embezzlement in a coffee company. And my prayers to Saint Lazarus were heard. After these incidents, even if I have to walk, I will give my offerings to the Saint,” says Erasmo. continue reading

On the morning of Friday the 15th, after a hearty breakfast of melon juice, bread with pork steak and cold salad of macaroni with ham, pineapple and mayonnaise, the couple, dressed in sackcloth and dragging a medium-sized stone they began their journey to Rincón, a small town south of the capital, where at the stroke of twelve o’clock on Saturday, December 16, in the sanctuary adjoining a leprosarium, the saint of beggars and the poor is venerated.

Erasmus wants to arrive at the town of El Rincon in the afternoon and buy candles, flowers and prayers. Also food and a bottle of rum to alleviate the cold that usually attends this time of year. “We thought to sleep outside in the sanctuary and after the mass, give our offering to old Lazarus. He deserves it.”

Because the procession coincides with the weekend, the “congregation of devotees, which is always impressive, this year is expected to be more numerous,” says a priest of a church in the neighborhood of La Víbora, who adds:

“There is a lot of frustration in the country. The wet foot/dry foot policy was eliminated, with the arrival of Trump to the White House and relations between Cuba and the United States have worsened. And after the supposed acoustic attacks, obtaining family reunification visas has become very complicated, because people have to travel to Colombia with all the expenses that represents. In addition, the government has slowed down its economic reforms.

“For more than three months now, it has not been issuing licenses to the most prosperous private businesses and the economy continues to deteriorate. All this is being suffered by the Cuban family, with salaries that do not solve much, a lack of housing, expensive food and an indecipherable future. As if that were not enough, it is unknown what will be the course of Cuba within three or four months, when it is assumed that Raúl Castro will leave power.”

Not only is Catholicism favored in times of economic crisis and people’s distrust of the poor management of the regime. Evangelists, Protestants and Jehovah’s Witnesses, among others, have increased their numbers of faithful. As have, of course, the Afro-Cuban religions, both Santería and Palo. Due to religious syncretism on the Island, Saint Lazarus is also known as Babalú Ayé and is venerated without distinction of creed.

Three years ago Yanira joined Santería — Yemayá, clarifies — and now goes dressed in white to El Rincón. “Every December 16, on the eve of Saint Lazarus, I’m walking down Rancho Boyeros Avenue to Rincón. The last section, from the village to the sanctuary, I crawled down the street. I have a lot of faith in old Lazarus. Thanks to him I have been successful in life.”

According to Ana Luisa, a resident in the town of Rincón and owner of a small business selling entrepanes (sandwiches) and flowers, “there are believers who spend up to one hundred convertible pesos in offerings to Saint Lazarus. When this time of year arrives, almost everyone in the village starts to sell something: food, flowers, candles, statuettes … Whatever it is, to take advantage of the influx of thousands of devotees, who usually pay a lot of money.”

Shortly before December 17, El Rincón is decorated with large floral decorations and dozens of images of San Lazaro, some of large size, which are placed in glass urns or in the portals of the houses.

On the main street, several private coffee shops offer Creole food, fruit smoothies, ham and cheese sandwiches or bread with roasted suckling pig. They also sell coffee, beer, rum, brandy and red wine, which helps to bear the coldness and damp that at night is felt in El Rincón, which belongs to Santiago de las Vegas, a town where temperatures usually drop quite a bit in December.

Although the official press hardly reports on the pilgrimage, spontaneously thousands of Cubans come to venerate Saint Lazarus. “It’s a village show. Even in the hard years, when the regime banned religious demonstrations, people flocked to the Rincón. That voluntary participation in Cuba only occurs in baseball games or mega concerts, like the Rolling Stones,” says Carlos, sociologist.

In spite of the silence, the authorities allow a flotilla of state buses to transport thousands of people to the sanctuary. During the journey on foot, hundreds of policemen, black berets and agents of the State Security dressed in civilian clothes, without much discretion, watch the pilgrims.

The plastic artists Luis Manuel Otero and José Ernesto Alonso, began a walk in support of freedom and democracy in Cuba, but they could not even leave Centro Habana: at the intersection of Belascoaín and Carlos III, they were detained by the political police. Alonso has already been released, but Otero’s whereabouts are unknown.

And by tradition, Saint Lazarus receives various prayers and petitions. Erasmo and his wife, from the Ocapuna neighborhood in the eastern province of Holguín, thank the “old man” for healing breast cancer and having escaped from prison.

Other faithful, like Ernesto, come from Miami to pray for reunification as soon as possible with his daughter who lives in Havana. And Otero and Alonso, with all their rights, they demand freedom and democracy.

Saint Lazarus, somewhere, hears them all.

For The Ordinary Cuban, Things Could Get Worse In 2018 / Iván García

Sign: “Thank you Fidel, we celebrate the 59th anniversary of the Revolution” Sign: “Happy Prosperous New Year 2018”. (Source: Juan Suarez taken from Havana Times)

Ivan Garcia, 4 January 2018 — The initial surprise is making him more and more angry and likely to lose his temper. Sitting in a black leather armchair in the living room in his house, 43-year-old Armando, a qualified physical education instructor, first moves his head from side to side, then smiles cynically, until he blows his fuse and shouts rudely: “Marino Murillo is a complete dick-face. With that bunch of shameless crooks for officials, Cuba cannot be fixed.”

Armando was watching an edited summary on TV of the eighth session of the National People’s Power Assembly which took place on 21st December just gone, put out after 6 pm on the Cubavision channel, pre-recorded in the Roundtable slot, to the whole country. continue reading

In one of the exchanges, Marino Murillo, ex Minister of Economy and Planning, known as the Economy Czar, explained how difficult it would be to abandon the dual currency, and touched on future regulations on private work and non-agricultural co-ops, as well as looking at new customs rules to put a brake on what the government considers illegal business. Armando couldn’t contain himself while he was listening to Murillo.

“What a fat fucker with his fat face and fat neck! More controls on private business, people flogging cheap trash and non-farm co-ops. He shamefacedly told us that  the General (Raul Castro)  told him that when they started the reform programme they didn’t know how complicated it would be. Right, and who pays for his inefficiency and ignorance?” Armando asks himself. To which he replies: “Nobody. And they keep going with the tired old tale that currency reunification is a slow business, and that we will have to wait for prosperity and decent wages. And it’s quite clear that none of the National officials have any problems with their housing or with getting food. They don’t care how long it takes to sort out the dual currency.”

Habaneros like Armando are the exception. None of the 10 persons we talked to had seen or read about the contributions by the deputies in the one-tune parliament. And more than that, they’re not interested.

“I’ve got high blood pressure. Do you think I’m gonna pick a fight with that lot, while they’re planning how to fuck us all? That’s why we Cubans are trying to find out whatever way to fuck the government. It’s an unofficial war. You rob me paying shit salaries and I rob my customers giving them short weight. They took away my sales licence for farm products, so I sell stuff informally. I don’t bother to fight these old farts. They have full pockets. I look for the way to make money and look after my family,” says Disney, a clerk on a private farm.

The economic and social strategies and policies dictated by the olive green brigade is not something that ordinary Cubans talk about. People’s passivity is alarming.

Zulema, who goes 8 to 10 times a year to Mexico or to the Panama Canal Zone to buy clothes and smartphones to sell them again in Cuba, says you shouldn’t pay any attention to the Cuban leaders. “If you get to tied up with them you get worn out. You can’t follow their rhythm. As far as I’m concerned, these old guys who have been in power for over fifty years are not going to get to me. Every time they close things up more and you have to look for whichever gap you can squeeze through.”

In more measured tones, Carlos, a sociologist, explains that there is an alarming disconnect between the government and the people. “They speak one language and the people speak another. People have lost confidence in their leaders and see them as a pain, a bunch of officials who only want to make problems, stopping them bettering themselves, moving forward, getting a better life. For quite a while a large part of the population have been coming up with whatever ways they can working for themselves and taking their own risks. The government’s decrees are a waste of breath. Nobody takes any notice of them.”

The island seems like a drifting boat. The perception is that the mandarins who run the country’s destiny are disorientated. They look tired and lacking in initiative. They don’t know how to connect with the people. They’ve lost the plot.

Because of this Yanet, her husband, and three kids over 18 only think about drinking beer they buy in bulk in a stinking state bar ande cheap rum they get for 20 pesos a bottle in any government store. While they are drinking in their propped-up house, they have reguetón full blast on the radio. Four friends play dominos on an untidy table, and a couple who are pissed dance drunkenly.

In a dented cooking pot, they are preparing a meat soup with pork bones. “There’s nothing else here. Today we party, and tomorrow … we’ll see. What am I hoping for in 2018. Same thing as 2017 — nothing. With this lot, we’ll have to go hungry. They have their fridges full of stuff to eat, and next year and the next, and the next it will be the same for them, and for us it will be worse. In Cuba things always get worse. This country is a disgrace,” says Yanet, while she moves her hips to the reguetón rhythm.

People who don’t have anything to lose just float. Day to day. Without worrying too much about the future. Not even a hurricane or a North Korean missile will change their brutal indifference. “Something very strange is happening in Cuba. Like in some parts of Africa, the only thing that interests many people is their family, their possessions and their surroundings. Patriotism and political awareness has faded away for most people,” explains Carlos the sociologist.

Damian, a university student, hopes to emigrate, one way or another. “If it isn’t next year, it will be the one after. My main aim is to get out of this madness.” Lots of Cubans also want to get out and more than a few work and act like zombies. If their objective in 2017 was to have two meals a day and four pesos in their pocket, for 2018 it’ll be the same thing.

And they couldn’t care less if it is Raul Castro running the place, or his son Alejandro, or Miguel Diaz-Canel, or Bruno Rodriguez or whoever. They lost their faith and hope a long time ago.

Translated by GH

Raul Castro Postpones His Retirement / Iván García

Raúl Castro Ruz, José Ramón Machado Ventura, Esteban Lazo and Miguel Díaz-Canel. Taken from France 24.

Ivan Garcia, 9 January 2017 — Jumping from a conversation about football one about Cuban domestic politics is not exactly an exercise in rational balance. That is why Eduardo, a veterinarian in a cooperative outside Havana, responded with a prolonged silence when the street debate took an unexpected turn.

The group was chatting in a corner in Havana’s La Víbora neighborhood about Lionel Messi’s Barcelona and Cristiano Ronaldo’s Real Madrid, when Carlos, a friend of Eduardo’s, started a monologue about how difficult it is in Cuba to be able to have breakfast, lunch and dinner. Then the subject of daily hardships stole the rostrum.

César, a bank employee, says: “The hardships start with low wages and lack of food, followed by a lack of housing and transport problems. The list is longer. Every day it becomes harder to live here.” continue reading

On the street, the tirades against Raúl Castro are often bitter and even offensive. His brother, the late populist caudillo, continues to arouse some respect among Cubans, be they apolitical or detractors of the Castro regime.

But Raul, handpicked by Fidel after he stepped aside on 31 July 2006 due to health problems, does not inspire the same consideration among ordinary people. Without restrictions, not a few Habaneros, mostly marginal, call him ‘Raula’ — the feminine version of his name — question his manhood and tell jokes about his sexuality.

There is a popular perception that Raúl is more repressive than his brother. “If he has to bring the tanks out on the street so that this shit does not fall, he’ll do it without thinking twice about it,” says a newspaper salesman.

Those who ever had dealings with Raúl Castro, such as the writer Juan Juan Almeida and the former state television journalist Lissette Bustamante, had a chance to experience little-known facets of the current president: that of a father and a grandfather who worships his children and grandchildren, an organized man who knows how to listen.

Nikolai Leonov, an old fox of the KGB who met the General in the ’50s when he was a simple Socialist Youth activist, in a report to the Soviet intelligence portrayed him full-length: an eternal conspirator.

With discretion, Raul Castro, has participated all the witch hunts and purges that have occurred in these 59 years of revolution. From the execution of the pilots of the Batista air force and the microfaction process to the Ochoa case and the dismissal of Carlos Lage and Felipe Pérez Roque.

“Raúl is more communist than his brother. Fidel only believed in him. If he wants, Raul can be cruel, but he has his feet on the ground,” says a person who knew him when he was a minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR).

Despite his repulsive reputation and without much political talent, in his eleven years at the helm of Cuba’s destiny, he authorized broader economic reforms than in the Castro I phase and repealed absurd regulations that made Cubans third-rate citizens in their own country, such as the legalization of the purchase and sale of cars and houses, travel abroad and being about to stay in exclusive hotels formerly open only to foreign tourists.

Although he has maintained the repression against the dissidence on the island and Cuban interference in Venezuela, Castro II negotiated Cuba’s financial debt with various countries on favorable terms and managed to reestablish diplomatic relations with the United States without giving an inch in his obsolete political principles.

According to credible sources, Raúl Castro’s decision to withdraw from power is unappealable. But as long as he lives, he will remain the first secretary of the Communist Party and, from the shadows, will play an important role in the sewers of power. “That’s what he likes. Manipulating the strings of power, from behind the power, ” says a former official.

The postponement of his retirement does not seem to be a delaying move. Some analysts believe that the current state of affairs, crisis in Venezuela, setbacks in relations with the United States and an economy on the razor’s edge, could have influenced Raúl to reconsider his decision to retire in February 2018.

The former official believes that “there has been more noise outside than inside. I think that this postponement is due to the fact that the elections of the municipal candidates were delayed due to Hurricane Irma. The deadlines that remain until February are very narrow to be able to elect the new deputies. I do not think it’s Raúl’s move to stay as president for two more months.”

Daniel, a barber, does not care when Raúl is going to retire or who will replace him. “We will keep the same style of government that has never worked. The Cubans will continue going through hell to get food. What interests me, and I suppose the people also, is that there are changes that really improve our lives, not the happy talk story they’ve been feeding us for 59 years. ”

What should be of interest to scholars of Cuba is the lack of charisma and meager qualities of the new batch of politicians in the country. Almost everyone feels uncomfortable before the cameras. Their speeches are mechanistic and trite. They make up for their poor creativity by cutting and pasting phrases from speeches delivered by Fidel Castro.

They never smile in their appearances. They are always serious, as if in a bad mood and their pathetic expression screams for an image consultant. But what most concerns citizens is that they have no idea how a nation is managed efficiently.

The great problem of Cuba is not Raúl Castro. It is what comes after.

Cuba 2017: Waiting for a Miracle / Iván García

Source: Remezcla

Ivan Garcia, 2 January 2018 — When the old Soviet-era truck was parked in front of a pharmacy in Havana’s La Víbora neighborhood, a line of more than thirty people soon formed to acquire some of the medicines unloaded. Nearby, at the entrance of a produce market, dozens of retirees and housewives waited to buy tomatoes.

In the last week of the year, on the busy Calzada Diez de Octubre, a crowd walked with elbows out loaded down with food. If you ask any of these people about the 1.6% economic growth announced by the regime in 2017, future strategies or their assessment of the rulers, you will find a wide range of responses, from disappointment in the state of affairs to indifference and frustration because nobody listens to them.

“What? The economy grew? That’s a story, partner. It grew for them. Where is that growth hidden that nobody sees it? There are lines everywhere, a total lack of some medicines and others where there’s not enough. Everything is a balloon,” says Armando, a carpenter, who has been waiting for an hour to buy Enalapril for his medical treatment. continue reading

The year 2017 started with bad news. In 2016, the Cuban economy had contracted, with GDP shrinking 0.9%, announced Ricardo Cabrisas, Minister of Economy and Planning. And the international scene looked ugly. Against all odds, Donald Trump, won the elections in the United States and the pact between President Barack Obama and the Cuban authorities began to take on water. In Venezuela’s Miraflores Palace, the brotherhood of ’Bolivarian’ compadres was clearly governing like a dictatorship. But the state oil company PDVSA is unable to produce higher oil shares and has had to make cuts that affect the Island.

“That is the key reason why Cuba is facing a dead end. The honorable thing is to throw all that nonsense of five-year plans and triumphalist speeches in the trash and undertake a deep economic reform. Communist nations like Vietnam and China initiated it and achieved an economic miracle,” says Ernesto, a scholar of the Cuban economy.

For his part, Carlos, a sociologist, believes that “one of the country’s biggest problems is its extravagant double currency system that transforms wages into a joke. That financial absurdity causes a flat screen TV to cost twenty times the salary of a professional; it means that agricultural production does not take off; it deforms the state accounting and causes a million people or more to dream of leaving their homeland for good.”

On Thursday, January 12, 2017, Obama repealed the wet foot/dry foot policy and the special program granted to Cuban doctors who could settle in the US any time they wanted. The possibility of stepping on American soil and starting a better life was cut off. In the fiscal year 2016, more than 50 thousand Cubans arrived in the United States, but in 2017 the migratory flow suffered a considerable decrease, according to Marti Noticias.

Heriberto, a retired university professor, thinks that “in response to Obama’s initiatives, the government reacted defensively. In the Palace of the Revolution they are already missing him. The dynamic could be different.”

But Castro’s Cuba responded with the usual petulance, believing that all these concessions were a debt owed by the White House after decades of “imperial aggressions.” And they let the train go by. They refused to develop solid economic foundations, invigorate a broad opening to small and medium-sized private companies and begin to rehearse an authentic and democratic social model.

They bet on stupid political stubbornness, putting their heads in the sand. They paralyzed economic reforms, stopped private work and continued to control and repress those who think differently. They temporarily closed the issuing of business licenses to individuals in many endeavors, and continued to arrest their opponents and seize the equipment of independent journalists.

With the whole country burning down, Raul Castro wrote a letter to Vladimir Putin asking for oil aid. Speaking clearly: he suggested Putin act as the relay pitcher for Nicolás Maduro in energy matters.

“The old KGB fox is still checking accounts. Putin is nationalistic, authoritarian and likes to bang on the table and show that Russia is a center of world power. I think one of the possible scenarios could be to reuse Cuba as a source of conflicts with the United States. Whether reopening an espionage base in the style of Lourdes or a base for nuclear submarines,” argues a former official.

At the moment, the picture is black for Moscow. The US special services have reasonable evidence that the Kremlin manipulated the US election in favor of Trump, a matter investigated by a special commission led by Robert Mueller, former director of the FBI. The sale of state-of-the-art US weapons to Ukraine and a sanctions packages against Russia could be used by Putin to design his next move.

In that game of world chess, Cuba, as on previous occasions, is only a sacrificial piece. The regime knows in advance what it means to ally with Moscow. Raul Castro and his substitute (handpicked by the olive green autocracy), should handle relations with the Russian bear with subtlety.

In the summer, while it became more expensive and difficult to get food in Cuba, the AP agency unveiled a story that seemed to come out of the annals of the Cold War. In installments, AP published that more than twenty officials of the Embassy of the United States in Havana were victims of an alleged acoustic attack: stealth soundwaves that affected their hearing..

It was also learned that in February 2017, Raúl Castro had talked with US chargé d’affaires Jeffrey DeLaurentis and assured him that Cuba was not behind that sonic aggression. For the first time, the authorities allowed the FBI and other US intelligence agencies to investigate in Havana.

Although the White House has not directly accused Cuba, nor has it presented evidence of a hypothetical culprit, the affair resulted in the removal of 50 percent of the diplomatic corps accredited on the Island, and in turn, the regime had to withdraw the same amount of officials from its embassy in Washington.

This brought about a paralysis, until further notice, in the issuing of the 20,000 visas planned for family reunification. Now, those interested must travel to Colombia or Mexico and carry out the procedures there, which means a considerable increase in costs to obtain the stamp of entry to the United States. An official from the State Department, with whom I met at a Miami event, told me that the matter could be delayed for more than a year, “because every six months is when the situation of the Embassy in Havana is evaluated.”

In September, Cuba was affected by the very powerful Hurricane Irma, which for several hours sailed along the north coast of the island causing 10 deaths and considerable damage. Although the regime has not offered exact figures on the amount of the damages, a source told Martí Noticias that “it could exceed twelve billion dollars.”

Irma destroyed hundreds of houses, damaged thousands of homes and its consequences are still visible in agriculture, tourism, state enterprises, cultural facilities and private businesses. Because of the hurricane, the authorities claimed, the municipal elections for the People’s Power were delayed, contents in which about 300 dissenting candidates were considering running. Violently violating their own Constitution, State Security prevented all of these candidates from making it to the contests or being selected.

It is precisely that delay, that us the pretext offered by Raúl Castro to postpone his retirement until April 19, 2018. Meanwhile, the official propaganda works piece by piece, with homages to the deceased Fidel Castro, highlights of record figures in the production of pork and two billion of foreign investment, and pointing out that the number of tourists grew to 4.7 million. But those achievements are still not reflected on the dinner tables of ordinary Cubans.

On the contrary. Every day it is more difficult to find breakfast, lunch and dinner in Cuba. Dozens of medications are missing in pharmacies and hospitals. The quality of public health and education continue to be low. Public transport remains an unaddressed issue. And the real housing deficit exceeds one million homes. Macroeconomics is not something you can eat.

For 2018, no improvements are expected. The probable retirement of Raúl Castro does not excite people. The popular perception is that afterwards could be worse. “Cuba’s problem is systemic. One wonders if the government has a plan B to save us,” says Heriberto, a retired university professor. Will we have to wait for a miracle?

Cuba: ’The Human Rights People’ / Iván García

The independent journalist Augstín López is silenced by plainclothes policemen while shouting “Long Live Human Rights.” Taken from Martí News.

Ivan Garcia, 12 December 2017 — On 28 January 1976 in Havana, Ricardo Bofull founded the Cuban Committee For Human Rights, along with Edmigio López and Marta Frayde. Forty-one years later, the independent journalist Tania Díaz Castro, in her house in Havana’s Jaimanitas neighborhood, west of the capital, surrounded by dogs and books, recalls that era.

“I joined in 1987. Bofill said that he and his small group were founded on 28 January in homage to the birthdat of the Apostle (José Martí). The place chosen was Dr. Marta Frayde’s house, in Vedado. By ironies of fate, this unforgettable and courageous woman had been a personal friend of Fidel Castro.

A short time later, almost everyone went to jail, for long years and for different accusations — invented ones — as was and is the custom of Castroism: Marta Frayde, Adolfo Rivero Caro, Elizardo Sánchez, Edmigio López, Enrique Hernández, and of course Ricardo Bofill. Thus, Fidel responded to the request of those intellectuals to review the situation of human rights in Cuba,” says Díaz Castro and adds: continue reading

“At one point, I was a kind of secretary for Bofill. In my house in Centro Habana I received eight or ten denunciations a day from citizens where the institutions of the regime had transgressed their rights. In 1987, Samuel Lara, Adolfo, Ricardo and I went to the Comodoro Hotel to meet with a UN commission, which the dictatorship authorized to enter the country, so that we could express our complaints. Spontaneously and despite the fact that repression was fierce at the time, outside the hotel more than a thousand people came to deliver their accusations.”

The journalist adds that Ricardo Bofill and Armando Valladares “were key players so that the issue of human rights violations by the regime became known around the world. They and others, planted the seed that has then germinated in hundreds of journalists, activists and independent groups in the current civil society.”

The Castro brothers’s Cuba has not changed its absurd political system and still maintains the dysfunctional planned economy. But, little by little, Cubans have been losing their fear. In any corner of the city you can hear openly anti-government comments, anti-Castro jokes and ridicule of the leaders.

Osviel, 43, an engineer, is committed to democracy and says he would like to earn a six-figure salary in a private company.

“Like most college graduates after the Revolution, I was indoctrinated. But the repeated deficiencies of the system have opened my eyes. The first time I had doubts was when I read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I realized that this government shamelessly violates some precepts that are part of individual rights. I understood that we are far from living in a democratic society. ”

Although the Republic of Cuba was a signatory on the 10 December 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the authorities on the Island consider the brochure that expresses these rights to be subversive.

The military autocracy persists in its delirious narrative that Cuba is the most democratic nation in the world. Without blushing, in the 8 December edition, an article published in the Party newspaper Granma said that “Cuba is an international symbol in the field of human rights.”

“They don’t even believe it themselves. There is a group of precepts, especially those of a political nature, which are violated in Cuba. The government thinks that by guaranteeing universal healthcare, the right to work and education it has already done its duty. But human rights go much further,” says Odalys, a lawyer.

Raúl Castro himself, in a press conference during Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba in 2016, acknowledged that “as in any part of the world, all human rights are not fulfilled here.”

On the commemoration of the 69th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Martí Noticias asked fourteen people, seven of each sex between the ages of 18 and 74, their opinions on the respect for human rights by the authorities in Cuba.

Ten responded that, in one way or another, several precepts are violated or rights that are not crimes in other countries are considered illegal. Two said it is “a US campaign” and two claimed ignorance of the matter.

Outside the survey, a Social Sciences student comments that “the most worrisome is the deficit of political rights. Cuba is one of the few countries in the world where it is illegal to found an opposition party or movement.”

For his part, a retired former military man believes that “the issue of human rights is a manipulation by the United States to attack Cuba. That is why the government should allow other parties and not imprison those who think differently. But always he who commands sets the rules of the game.”

Rigoberto, a taxi driver, is clear that “here elementary rights are violated, not only those of a political nature. For example, people from eastern Cuba who migrate to Havana are considered illegal [residents], and according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Cuban Constitution, that regulation is illegal.”

Carlos, a sociologist, mentions specific cases. “Look at the disrespect of a broad set of human rights in Cuba: until seven years ago it was illegal to buy or sell a house or car, to be a tourist in your own country, or to be able to travel freely abroad. Now others are still not being met. Cubans can not board boats with motors, create a party or found a newspaper in a legal manner.”

René, a lawyer, states that “where rights are violated the most is in the legal field. In the absence of tripartite powers, the majority of the population is defenseless against the legal machinery. Legal irregularities are numerous and people have nowhere to go to seek justice and impartiality.”

Although in recent years, I must clarify, hundreds of citizens who consider themselves harmed by legal rulings have received advice from independent lawyers or offered their testimonies to alternative journalists.

“It’s the last shuffle of the cards. When I see that the State blocks all paths, I will see an independent journalist to tell my to story online,” confesses Senén, a bank employee.

Within the expression ‘the human rights people’, ordinary Cubans include a political activist, a dissident lawyer, and a free journalist. Increasingly they go to opposition groups. For any reason. If their house falls down, or they are subject to a criminal penalty that they consider unfair, or they want to denounce embezzlement in a state company.

And the Cuba of 2017 is not the Cuba of the 1980s. For some, the Island is making no progress. For others, they can see the light at the end of the tunnel. It is the theory of the glass half full or half empty. According to how you perceive it.

Christmas and New Year’s in Cuba / Iván García

Santa Claus and company distribute advertising for a private restaurant through the streets of Old Havana. (Taken from Eju!)

Ivan Garcia, 22 December 2017 — You sense it, the penetrating smell of dead pigs, opened in the middle and showing their viscera, as soon as you enter the state-owned smoked meat production center in the municipality Diez de Octubre, south of Havana.

Four people with green surgeon hats and high rubber boots sort the pigs. Some are sent to a ramshackle refrigerator full of legs, ribs and loins. Others, after being boned, are steamed, prior to the process of making sausages.

When night falls, after the bosses leave, the under the table shenanigans begin. Owners of small businesses, before acquiring several pigs, bargain the prices with the center’s workers. Residents in the area also buy pork legs or pieces of loin. “At Christmas and New Year’s we make a nice bit of cash,” says one operator. continue reading

Josuán, the father of three children from different marriages, confesses that when December comes he feels it in his wallet. “Imagine, I have to buy pork for three houses. I always come to the processing center, because the meat sold in the market costs no less than 45 pesos per pound of loin and 25 or 30 per pound of pork. Here the legs go for 16 or 17 pesos a pound. I run my risks, because if the police catch me, they confiscate the meat and fine me 1,500 CUC. But those who don’t take risks, don’t eat cheap pork,” he says, while stacking his purchases in the trunk of a Soviet-era Lada.

December is a month of taking stock and family reunions. According to Cuban tradition, on the 24th Christmas Eve is celebrated, and on the 31st or New Year’s Eve, people say goodbye to the old year and await the new.

“I would like to have roasted turkey on the 24th and pork at the end of the year. There are families that can celebrate Christmas Eve with turkey, chicken and pork. But most people eat white rice, black beans, yucca with garlic sauce and a piece of pork. Some don’t have even that,” says Josefa, a housewife.

In the Cuba of 2017, following the custom to the letter is expensive. A frozen eight-kilogram turkey costs 45 CUC, four times the monthly minimum wage or a retiree’s total monthly pension. No less than 20 CUC or the equivalent in Cuban pesos is the cost of a leg of pork. Another 20 CUC goes to buy rice, beans, cassava, tomatoes, garlic, onion and lemon.

“Every year the price of food has gone up. To celebrate a decent Christmas, a family has to pay 100 CUC or more, not including drinks,” says Romelio, a stevedore at the port.

A week ahead of time, Olga Lidia, a hotel employee, goes through the hard currency stores in Miramar, Vedado and Old Havana, in search of nougat and trinkets. “This year I saw more assortment and variety than last year, but the prices are higher. In my house, Christmas begins on December 1st, when we put the little tree together and put it in the living room. We almost always have to buy lights or some new decorations. That’s when the meter starts running: you can spend 30 CUCs on those things. Then comes the search for food and drink, where you can easily drop 200 CUC. We buy three or four nougats and chop that into small pieces, so that everyone gets some.”

Sixty years ago, before Fidel Castro took power at gunpoint in January 1959, Marta, now retired, remembers that even the poorest Cubans celebrated Christmas and waited for the New Year. “We lived in Mantilla, my family came from the working class. On Christmas Eve, in addition to white rice, black beans, yucca with mojo, a salad of lettuce, tomato and radish, we ate roast suckling pig and turkey fricassee. For dessert, buñuelos in syrup and guava or grapefruit with white cheese.

“After the dates, figs and nougat (almond, almond-and-honey, egg and marzipan) we stayed at the table, cracking nuts and hazelnuts. On the 25th we had lunch, as we called the leftovers from Christmas Eve. On that day we exchanged gifts, each one wrapped with pretty paper and a red ribbon. We gave away cards that in Spanish said Feliz Navidad y Próspero Año Nuevo or in English Merry Christmas. On December 31, Hatuey beer, Bacardí rum, El Gaitero cider and, of course, the grapes were never lacking.”

Osviel, an unemployed worker who also sells clothes imported by the ‘mules’ and is the runner for the illegal lottery known as the ‘little ball’, has not been able to buy anything.

“It should be a special day, but when you do not have money, Christmas Eve (known as ’nochebuena’ or good night) becomes a ’nightmare’ (‘nochemala’ or bad night). If the chicken arrives at the butcher’s shop, that’s what we’ll have for dinner at my house. In this country, eating a typical menu has become a luxury.”

Since the end of the 1960s, until the early 90s, given that it was a Catholic tradition, Christmas was celebrated discreetly in Cuba. We are in the 21st century and still the regime does not celebrate it publicly.

“My mother closed the windows of the house so that the blinking lights on the tree would not be seen, although the smell of roasted pork would give us away to the president of the CDR (Committee for the Defense of the Revolution),” recalls Luis Alberto, a high school teacher.

Another Cuban custom is to wish health and that the plans are fulfilled in the new year. When the Christmas cards disappeared, it was done personally or by phone. Now, with wifi in public spaces, it is expressed through emails and text messaging.

“My wishes for 2017 were not fulfilled. I was thinking of emigrating to the United States, but Obama put a lock on that with the repeal of the wet foot/dry foot law. For 2018 I am not optimistic. Living in Cuba is very complicated, especially if you aspire to have some prosperity,” says Reinaldo, an engineer.

Alexandra, a light-skinned mixed-race woman with blue eyes, whose dream is to be an international model, at 12 midnight on December 31 will maintain the family routine.

Risueña explains that at that time “we will throw two or three buckets of water on the street, to scare away envy, bad eyes and negative vibrations. And I will once again walk around the block with a suitcase, which has to be on wheels if you want to be given a trip to a developed country. If you go with a briefcase or a normal suitcase, the trip can be to another province, to Venezuela or to a nation that is in flames.”

If something is renewed at the end of the year among ordinary Cubans, it is the hope that things in Cuba will finally begin to change. For good, because for worse, that is impossible.

In Cuba the Future is More Frightening Than the Present / Iván García

Woman in Havana. Taken from Eurweb.

Ivan Garcia, 20 December 2017 — The place where Anselmo and Yolanda prepare their food has cracked walls and soot covers the entire room. Modernity has not arrived. They cook with kerosene, wood or charcoal.

Fixed to the wall, two casserole dishes of medium proportions soaked by the excessive use of fire and blackened from the lack of detergent. Cockroaches, partying. Right now they are in the food left over from the last meal. When Anselmo, 73, sees them, he does not chase them away them with his hand.

“Do you know that cockroaches are the only living beings that would survive a nuclear war?” he says in response. And after an explanation where he mixes a fable with information read in the Granma newspaper, he grabs his gray and dirty beard, gets serious and answers my question: continue reading

“What is my future project? Gather more recycleables or that the State begins to pay a better price for scrap. Get off your cloud, pal, here things will not change. Raúl Castro and his gang have the upper hand. If nobody quits, this lasts a hundred years. Or more,” clearly shows Anselmo’s pessimism. He’s an old man who should be enjoying his retirement and who to survive walks more than seven kilometers a day, picking up empty beer and soda cans.

Anselmo and his wife Yolanda, a 70-year-old retiree, sell plastic bags outside a bakery south of Havana. They would like to have a clean kitchen and a refrigerator with beef, chicken and fish.

But the reality is quite different. They eat a hot meal once a day. And when they do not have kerosene, they cook with pieces of wood they find on the street.

The number of people living in poverty and extreme poverty in Cuba increases every year. The timid economic reforms of Raúl Castro and pharaonic economic plans projected out to 2030 do not offer solutions for Havanans like Anselmo and Yolanda.

With the arrival of a cold front, the troop of the dispossessed, who have the sky for a roof, have put on their old shirts and sweaters, one on top of the other and the luckiest wear olive green jackets, from when they were militiamen themselves or given to them by a relative who was or is one.

“When temperatures drop, we feel the hunger more,” says Germán, a guy who sells clothes collected in garbage dumps. “To deal with the cold, I drink a lot of alcohol.”

How do you see yourself in the future? Do you have a project, I ask. He shakes his head. He stares at me, as if I were a Martian or a foreigner who accidentally ended up in these parts.

“Come down to earth, man. The future is equal to or worse than the present. At least for people like us. In Cuba, the future is not to die. We poor people live adrift in Cuba,” he says.

But when you inquire of professionals, university students or private entrepreneurs, the record of opinions is also pessimistic.

Liana, a doctor, works at a clinic in the old Covadonga hospital, in El Cerro, fifteen minutes from the center of the capital. “My near future is to reach the title of specialist. Then try to get a master’s. But it is not a priority. If before I get a mission abroad, either on my own or through the State, I will look for a way not to return. In Cuba, the future is more frightening than the present.”

Even Luciano, who considers himself a bulletproof Fidelista, is not so optimistic when talking about the future. “You have to trust in the Revolution. The causes of economic stagnation or not being able to offer a good quality of life are often not the fault of the government. The Yankee blockade is not a game. Add to that that there is a caste of bureaucrats who hold back economic reforms and foreign investments. Things must change, because as Fidel said in a speech at the University of Havana, the only ones who can make the process fail are ourselves with our bad work. And the truth is that we are not doing things right.”

Discontent among Cubans, believe me, is not a minority feeling. People are tired of the triumphalist discourse. Of low wages, high food prices and living without a future project and having to turn their backs to progress.

“We live from day to day. How many people have a bank account in Cuba? How is it possible that an engineer has a salary lower than a pushcart vendor who sells fruit? There are many questions without answers. Too much official silence. I suppose that, like Newton’s Law, due to gravity, things in Cuba have to change. But at the moment, that is not a priority nor is it the government’s will,” says Lizet, an architect.

Darián, sitting in a Vedado park, considers that the worst thing is that more and more exit doors are closed. “The island has become a mousetrap. There is nowhere to go. Or you invent a legal business or one under the table. Either you steal at work or you sell the shit brought by ’mules’ from Russia. If we escape from this we are crazy.”

Joel, a historian, believes that the country, necessarily, is destined to a radical change. “The reforms will arrive by political, economic and ideological obsolescence. The theses that did not work are going to die of old age. Although if the rope keeps tightening around the neck of the people, the popular reaction could be unpredictable. Everything has a limit.”

The regime knows it. You can not govern just by selling smoke. And Cuba is that. Pure smoke.