Quinceaneras in Cuba: A Vanity Catwalk / Iván García

A quinceañera poses in a classic American Car. (NBC News)

Ivan Garcia, 14 August 2017 — A week in Punta Cana, Cancun, or some paradisiacal beach in the Bahamas. And if the family is well heeled, two weeks on a luxury cruise.

The excursion to an all-inclusive hotel in the Caribbean, in addition to the quinceañeara and her parents, can include the girl’s best friend and boyfriend. Orestes, a corpulent mestizo who makes a living “under the table,” explains to the Hispano Post the latest trends in girls’ 15th birthday parties in Cuba.

At a private cafe in the Vedado neighborhood, Orestes details about the expenses. “A week in Punta Cana, at an all-inclusive four-star hotel, three people, can spend $1,400 on the room reservation and maybe 200 or 300 more fulas (bucks) on purchases and gifts. I advise you to bring more money, because both the stores in those resorts and the markets in Dominican Republic have quality packages at good prices and you can buy merchandise and then resell it in Cuba and cushion the expenses a little.”

Orestes goes on to give more details. “Before the trip 300 CUC (339 dollars) are spent to get three passports. Then the visa, whether the Dominican, Mexican or Bahamian, has to be paid for, in addition to fulfilling a lot of requirements, because although the United States has repealed the policy of wet foot/dry foot, the perception in Latin America and in the world is that Cubans are likely immigrants. People who have a multiple-entry visa for the United States do not have problems, because with it they can travel throughout the continent without any other visa. And if you’re lucky you can get a tourist visa for the daughter and pay for a stay in Miami Beach, which would be ideal, but the accommodation and expenses are higher.”

He pauses to drink a mamey milkshake and stare for a moment at the Confederations Cup soccer match between Portugal and New Zealand, from a flat screen at the coffee bar. Orestes goes on to explain:

“Already with the expenses of the hotel, air ticket and other preparations for three people, the sum fluctuates between 3 thousand and 4 thousand CUC. But the expenses of a quinceañeara party that pulls out all the stops do not end there. The package of photos, something usual among the quinceañeras, costs 120 CUC for the cheapest and 950 CUC for the most expensive. Add to that, from 400 to 500 CUC for the purchase of clothes, getting her hair done at a noted hairdresser and, to finish the job, about 2 thousand CUC for a not too flashy party, because a quality celebration is 5,000 CUC,” aays Orestes, who says that, on the party for his daughter, including the trip abroad, photos, clothes, hairdressing and party, he spent the equivalent of $10,000.

“Brother, and I have not finished yet, because I have two other daughters who will also have to celebrate their quinceañeras,” he concludes with a forced smile.

The quinceañera festival is a tradition that goes beyond Cuba: in several Latin America countries they are also celebrated. According to a historian consulted, “This custom dates back to the Middle Ages, when kings and princes, landowners and merchants awaited the time of puberty (coinciding with the onset of menstruation and, therefore, the reproductive age of fertility) to make the most of their daughters. It was time to expose them publicly before the greedy eyes of future husbands. And among these, select not the most handsome or someone of appropriate age for the young woman, but the one who could offer a higher dowry.”

At one time in Cuba, rich families broke the bank, the middle class saved and organized a more or less sumptuous party. The daughters of employees and workers were satisfied with modest celebrations. Other families could not even afford that. “I turned 15 on November 10, 1957 and my parents only gave me a sweater that cost ten pesos,” recalls the journalist Tania Quintero.

“In my fifteenth, in 1985, in parties, drinks and clothes bought in tourist shops, my parents spent about 800 pesos, which at that time amounted to 200 dollars, as the fula was exchanged on the black market at four pesos to one. My parents were professionals, they had good salaries and they started saving from the time I was four or five years old. At my daughter’s party, in 2012, we spent almost 4 thousand dollars,” says Betty, a language teacher.

And in five years, the expenses have multiplied by a factor of ten. As has the vanity, tackiness and frivolity. If at one time the savings of the parents were enough to organize the 15th birthday party, now the celebration involves the whole family and relatives living abroad.

“If you have relatives in the US they save you. They may not be able to send you a lot of money, but it’s a relief if they send you clothes, cosmetics and hair products,” says Luisa, a divorced mother who has spent a decade collecting money for her only daughter’s Quince.

A sociologist in Havana says that more than a tradition, “Quince parties have become a social event where many families want to show off their economic solvency. Show that they are different. There is a sort of rivalry. And those who can, they want to organize a party more lavish than those of their daughter’s friends at school. A total escalation to foolishness and waste. The worst thing is that many families who spend large amounts of money leave other priorities of everyday life unresolved, such as repairing their home.”

Mariana, the mother of 16-year-old twins, says that the day after their birthday she did not have the moneyf or a cup of coffee. “You are sending your daughters out into that world, where in the typical pack complex, every girl wants her party to be the same or better than her friend’s. It’s kind of like a drug. And parents and relatives begin to spend wildly. They want to rent the best costumes, the best photographer, the best hair stylist, a famous television presenter and the most recognized DJ. Absolute madness.”

Those who benefit most from this celebration fever is the private sector. Giuseppe, an Italian who landed in Cuba after his marriage, was dedicated to photographing seabeds.

“But that kind of photography does not earn cash in Cuba. Then I scrambled and with my savings I opened a business photographing weddings and quinceñearas. The main thing is to be creative and offer quality. The rest comes alone. I have cheaper packages, between 200 and 300 CUC. But people usually choose photo packages of 600 CUC or more. Each package includes transportation, rental of costumes and videos. The most sold packages are those where the girl, thanks to the techniques of photoshop, embraces her idols, and a magazine in made about her life or announcing famous brands. Yes, it’s pretty kitschy, like those parties, but they drop of nice wad of cash,” confesses Giuseppe.

Actors, musicians, comedians and TV presenters earn extra money as masters of ceremony. “Besides drinking and eating for free, the Quince parties allow me to support my family and buy quality food. For every presentation including a comic show for an hour and a half, I charge 150 CUC,” says a well-known comedian.

On a single party you can spend the salary of four years of a high level professional. And there is no class distinction. From the poor who count their centavos to those who have bank accounts, everyone in Cuba likes to celebrate their daughters’ fifteenth birthdays.

Now a novelty has been added. Young Cuban men are also celebrating their 15th birthdays. It does not matter that on the Island the average monthly salary is 25 dollars and many families only eat one meal a day. Ostentation can do more.

Translated by Sofia

The Day Havanans Shouted "Down With Fidel!" / Iván García

People walking down Galiano Street heading to the Malecón on August 5, 1994. Taken from the blog Maleconazo.

Ivan Garcia, 8 August 2017 — When night falls on Havana’s Malecon, an optical illusion gave the impression that on the horizon the sun was devouring the sea. This is the hour when Daniel, a retiree of 66, sat himself down on a wooden bench and, along with several neighbors, and drinks the worst quality homemade rum.

For half a century, Daniel has lived in masonry shell facing the Malecon. The cheap paint on the facade can’t hide the cracks of the aggressions of the salt air which has chipped away pieces of the old building.

“Every now and then we have electrical problems,” he says, pointing out several uncovered wires in the entry hall, “and the water pump is always broken,” says Daniel, as he parsimoniously continues to smoke a hand-rolled cigarette. continue reading

For Havanans who live in areas along the shore, the incursions of the sea, the hurricanes, carnivals, and clandestine businesses, mark a difference with the rest of the residents of the capital. “Here on the Malecon you can see everything. Couples having sex on the wall or against the cliffs, tourists looking for hookers — women and men, and people selling marijuana, take away food, or little cones of peanuts. The Malecon shows you the good and bad of Havana,” affirms Daniel.

The Colon neighborhood, a stone’s throw from the maritime walkway, is the cradle of prostitution, illicit games and the consumption of drugs. A zone where poverty is a difficult cross to bear, potable water is a luxury, and people think twice as fast as most Cubans.

And it was precisely these neighborhoods — Colón, Jesús María, Belén, San Isidro, Los Sitios and San Leopoldo — that were the epicenter of that spontaneous and popular protest that took place on 5 August 1994, known as the Maleconazo.

It is unlikely that any Havanan over age 40 will not remember what they were doing that day.

“In 1994, in this part of the city we were not as bad off as in other parts of the country. During the Special Period we did not have blackouts because the electrical system is buried. But the people were fed up. There was tremendous hunger, very few could eat a hot meal once or twice a day. And even if you had money, there was nothing to buy. At night they put up signs against the government. Plans to hijack the Regla ferry or a port craft were forged in Central Havana,”says Daniel, and he continues recalling:

“The youngest were acting up. Making rafts, stealing bikes, robbing the yumas (foreigners) to get their money or whatever they could. It was an ugly scene. On 5 August I was putting some tiels on a friend’s house, when I heard the hubbub. Then, my friend’s wife tells me that people are breaking the windows in the Hotel Deauville and attacking the hard currency stores.

“When I looked over the balcony,” Daniel continues, “I saw some thousand men and women, different ages and races, had taken to the streets and were protesting. At 11 in the morning there was a human sea. They came from other neighborhoods, they began to raid the state properties and shout Abajo Fidel. Some were demanding freedom. My buddy and I believed that the government had faltered. If there had been cellphones, like there are now, the system would have fallen.”

Susana, a 59-year-old housewife, lives in a basement in Amargura Street, in Old Havana. “August 5th fell on a Friday and like every day, I was selling something at the entrance to the tenement. That day I was selling avocados for a dollar, or its equivalent, 120 pesos. There was a fucking dog. The Cuban peso lost its value. A pound of rice cost 100 pesos and a pound of black beans 120 pesos, if you could find them. Beef had disappeared and pork was over the moon: 150 pesos a pound. People were eating stray cats, pigeons, and making soup with lizards.”

Susana continues evoking one of the worst eras in Cuba in almost six decades of Castroism. “The people were on the point of exploding. When the protests started I put away the sack with the avocados and headed to Avenida del Puerto. That was impressive. People were shouting slogans against the government. The rumor was spreading that boats were coming from Florida to collect whoever wanted to leave. I prepared a bundle of clothes and put some salt crackers in a plastic bag. I already saw myself in Miami.”

Carlos, a sociologist, says that the protests starring Havana’s Malecon left behind a great lesson. “The government realized that people were fed up with so many blackouts, so much poverty and the scarcity of food. If they were able to neutralize the revolt in less than 12 hours it was because it was spontaneous, without a leader or an organized strategy. If there had been leadership in those protests, the story would probably have been different.”

Víctor Manuel Domínguez, a journalist and freelance writer, on 5 August went to Santiago de Las Vegas. “I had gone to visit an outstanding nephew in a military unit. When I returned to my house, near Chinatown, I was struck by several jeeps and special troopers with long weapons. They had broken the windows of shops and the OFICODA. The number of people coming down to the Malecon was tremendous. ”

In 1994, Domínguez was affiliated with an illegal union directed by Carmelo Diaz. Twenty-three years later, Víctor Manuel thinks that it would be very difficult for a popular protest like the one of the 5 of August to be repeated.

“The genesis of this revolt was not to demand political rights or democracy. People threw themselves into the street simply because they wanted to emigrate. I’m not optimistic. The dissidence today is living on the moon, and most Cubans, although we complain, we do not have the option to go out to protest against the government. There is a lot of individualism and citizen solidarity. It’s each man for himself,” points out Victor Manuel Domínguez, and confesses: “I will never forget the extensive blackouts and empty casseroles. Some nights I went to sleep without eating anything all day.”

Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello, an economist and former political prisoner recalls: “In August of 1994 I had been an opponent for five years and that day, when the protests began, I was at my sister Elena’s house on Neptuno, at the corner of Lealtad. I remember two women police officers, who took off their uniforms and joined the march. The local opposition did not even see it coming.” And she emphasizes: “I do not believe that the dissidence can lead future protests. It is disconnected from the people, making appeals and proclamations that do not resonate among the Cubans. The changes in Cuba will come from popular pressure.”

August 5, 1994 was an example. 23 years have passed and no new Maleconazo is on the horizon. Fear and apathy are winning the game of everyday poverty and a future between question marks. For now.

The Maleconazo, Cuba’s First Popular Revolt, Happened 23 Years Ago / Iván García

Ivan Garcia, 6 August 2017 — Havana, 4 August 1994. Amidst the suffocating heat, 12-hour blackouts, the devalued currency, and the scarcity of food, the sensations felt on the streets of Havana 23 years ago had reached the breaking point.

Frustration and social malaise were in full bloom. People sat on the corners making plans to emigrate. Even the most intransigent Fidelistas, in whispers, suggested urgent changes were needed in the monolithic structures of power.

The question was simple. If Fidel Castro didn’t introduce economic reforms, a great number of Cubans were going to die of hunger. Some of my friends and relatives looked like they’d emerged from Nazi concentration camps because of all the weight they’d lost. My mother lost some of her teeth, and solved a problem of buying food by selling her record collection of Brazilian music for just 39 dollars. continue reading

Chinese bicycles were distributed at workplaces and as they were too heavy, many workers sold them or took them to the countryside to exchange for a pig; if they didn’t have a patio they kept the pig in the house. A doctor we knew, who was 60, spent so much trouble trying to find something to feed the pig, which he kept in the unused bath in his house, that he died of a heart attack.

In 1994, in the midst of the Special Period, an avocado cost one dollar, or 120 pesos under the counter, and rice was 100 pesos a pound, when you could find it. A pound of roast pork was 150 pesos, and old people stood in long lines for a cup of lime tea. The Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) passed out tickets that gave you the right to eat a Zas* hamburger — one of Fidel Castro’s “inventions” — and drink a glass of soda pop.

Cats disappeared from the city: those who ate them said they tasted like rabbit. More than a few people passed out in the street. The illnesses caused by the lack of vitamins and proteins got worse and worse. If Option Zero was reached, the army would be in charge of distributing food to the blocks. Illegal departures by raft shot up. In this environment of misery and desperation, life passed in the capital.

On the night of 4 August, in the Vibora neighborhood, there was a planned 12-hour blackout from 8 at night until 8 in the morning. Many people put their mattresses on the roofs of their houses and slept like that.

At ten in the morning on 5 August, different versions of what was happening on the Malecon started to spread through the neighborhood. “Listen, this is fucked up. In Colon, San Leopold and Jesus Maria people are throwing themselves into the street. They’re sacking the stores and overturned a police car,” said a gentleman who claimed to have come from Central Havana.

A group of young people and adults, along with the driver on the 15 bus route, who was then at the Vibora stop, decided to travel to the epicenter of the conflict. During the trip the driver was picking up people with big bags, as if they were going on a picnic. It was rumored that illegal sailings were leaving for Florida and anyone who wanted to could get aboard.

Just beside the former Presidential Palace, the combined forces of the police, State Security, and Special Troops, stopped the bus (a converted truck). The driver opened the doors and the we passengers, to prevent the military from taking possession of the truck full of detainees quickly all got off and taking advantage of the human sea already taking shape at that house, we disappeared among the crowds and into surrounding streets.

For the first time I heard shouts of “Down with Fidel.” The huge crowd walked toward the Malecon and the Avenida del Puerto. People with binoculars searched the horizon for boats. The destruction of the “shoppings” and at the Hotel Deauville were obvious. The wide road that runs parallel to the Malecon was filled with stones and pieces of bricks.

At four o’clock in the afternoon, dozens of army trucks, jeeps with mounted machine guns at the back, special unit soldiers and construction workers from the Blas Roca Contingent, armed with baseball bats and thick steel bars were lashing out left and right, beginning to restore order.

Meanwhile, news spread from the TV that Fidel Castro was coming to the area of the revolt.

A military vehicle pulled up in front of the Capitol building. And those who, until that moment, in the area, had been screaming against him, from intuition and fear changed their tune. They began to applaud and shout “Viva Fide,” joined by hundreds of supporters of the government. The mob mobilized by the regime came down Prado Street, shouting revolutionary slogans, with signs and aluminum tubes in their hands.

By eight o’clock at night, the spontaneous popular protest had been controlled by the olive-green autocracy.

What happened 23 years ago deserves an analysis. Could it happen again? Let’s go by step.

During the 1960s, the mass emigration of a middle class made up of politicians, doctors, engineers, journalists and other professionals allowed Fidel Castro to sweep away all the republican institutions, bury the free press and raise his hermetic dictatorship.

Backed by widespread popular support, Castro erected a Soviet-style state. Even the Constitution was a carbon copy. An army that was once the largest in Latin America, a powerful network of agencies that were appendages of the regime, to which was added the effectiveness of the secret services. All this allowed Fidel Castro to found one of the most perfect machines of social control in modern history.

Workers had no right to strike or to form trade unions, and laws condemned those who dared to dissent many years of imprisonment (or death penalty). El barbudo (the bearded one) sowed terror among Cubans.

Opposing the regime had — and still does — a high personal cost ranging from repression and ’murder’ of a dissident’s reputation to verbal lynchings that can end in criminal proceedings.

It is one of the reasons, among others, that explain why Cubans do not rebel. The most they do is complain: the majority of the population is convinced that Castroism is a disaster.

The ordinary citizen perceives the State as a territory of a privileged caste that, due to historical or genetic merits, it is up to them to govern without accountability to the people.

Despite the perpetual economic crisis affecting the nation, it is not likely that in the short term mass protests will occur where Cubans claim their rights or demand democracy.

But, look, any arbitrariness of the regime can trigger small or medium protests. Cases have already been reported. Like the protest of the drivers in Bayamo or bicitaxistas in Havana.

Right now, the new state policies restricting private entrepreneurs could become the embryo of numerous protests. Although, in general, these groups do not have leadership or organizational methods. They are rather spontaneous, driven by government abuses.

The dissidence has failed to connect with that segment of the population that is in conflict with the military junta that governs Cuba’s destiny. And in turn, many disgruntled people avoid contacting the opposition, for fear of being branded as ’counterrevolutionaries’.

But the social upheaval, low wages and distrust towards the regime is present. There are more accumulated social problems than the State’s capacity to solve them.

Today, the island is a box of matches that at the slightest touch can set off a spark. Even fear has an expiration date.

*Translator’s note: “One night [Fidel] asked his consultants to ship some McDonald’s hamburgers to him by air. He wanted to compare them with some burgers he had created and christened “Zas.” After trying the gringo hamburgers, he declared the Cuban versions better. The Zas burgers were sold in cafes that were converted into hamburger restaurants, two per person.” Source: Ivan Garcia earlier post. 

Cuba: Killing the Language and Making Beauty Ugly / Iván García

Man urinating in the street. From Cubanet.

Ivan Garcia, 31 July 2017 — Although they speak bad Spanish, with sentences chopped-up and sometimes incoherent, Sarah and Liudmila, in theory, are not illiterate. Their academic certificates show they passed the twelfth grade.

After finishing pre-university with their high school diplomas, they opted for the quickest way to make some money — working as escorts or prostitutes. Equally happy to sleep with a foreigner, of whatever nationality, race, belief or sexual orientation, or a Cuban, so long as they have enough money to pay for a night of fun, alcohol and cocaine.

Liudmila tells Sarah about her latest achievement. She does it in a made up language that they speak in Havana. continue reading

Original version: “Went out last night. Hooked a wild one who was at the pa’comer y pa’llevar (Havana cafe ). We downed a basin-full and then I went with the fool to his “holy room” (reference to a Cuban initiation ceremony). The guy gave me an incredible fuck. In the end he gave me 50 pesos. Today, it’s a second round with this freak; yawanna stringalong, bitch?”

Translation: “What I did last night. I won over an excellent client. We had some beers and then rented a room in a private house.  The guy was the best in bed. He paid me 50 dollars. I’m going to see him again today. Want to come with me?

Sarah and Liudmila, like thousands of young Cubans, prostitute themselves for a fistful of dollars. It’s their right. What is pitiful is the vulgar way they express themselves.

Right now, Cuba is exposed to various interconnected crises. An ongoing economic crisis; and a crisis of identity, with a whole lot of young kids who aren’t interested in their country’s history, or culture, and, fundamentally, the absence of morals and values, which is accentuated by the deterioration of the language. With people who speak worse and worse Spanish and whose conduct is sometimes vulgar and aggressive.

We know that the Castro regime has not done what it should have in economic and social matters.  Starting with services and going on through “revolutionary aesthetics” in design and architecture  – mostly clumsy and in poor taste – and on to its inability to provide meat, fish, seafood or fruit for the people, not just for tourists.

The hardships and shortages could be overcome with a government which is efficient and not corrupt. But, the crisis of values?

It would definitely take a long time to change that. Generations, probably.

You get in a shared taxi and say “good day” and no-one answers. People drop rubbish at every corner, leading to epidemics with who-knows-what consequences. Everyone thinks they have the right to play unbearably loud music in their house, and never mind the neighbours.

People frequently mistreat their children or hit their girlfriend or wife. It’s also become normal to drink beer in a bar and, although there may be a public toilet nearby, the men prefer to urinate in the street. And, in urgent cases, to defecate on the stairs in a building.

A story. I was going to my apartment, when I saw a woman excreting in the entrance to a building round the corner from mine. Seeing me scowling, the woman, the worse for a few drinks, says: “Hey, whitey, don’t act all refined. Everybody taking a shit does it where they can.  I’m not going to keep it bottled up, am I?

But the most lethal attack is on the Spanish language. One way or another, we Cubans have been killing it by incorporating in our vocabulary marginal expressions which many people think are funny or witty.

It’s not a joke. Sergio, a political science graduate, considers that the poor language employed by the official media, a virile and nationalist narrative, with a hint of tropical neo-fascism, has influenced the regression of Castilian Spanish and also affected the rules of civilised behaviour.

“Fidel Castro wanted to sweep away the past and adopted a new language – crude, arrogant and belligerent toward his opponents, inside and outside the country. Compañero and compañera were substituted for lady and gentleman. And he replaced politeness with a “proletarian manner”, which didn’t work in practice. All the government and Communist party propaganda is been filled up with repetitive slogans, initials and a boring lexicon. And that water brings this mud. Now, when they talk, many Cubans don’t have a command of more than five hundred words from the dictionary, they can’t write and their grammar is appalling”.

Sarah and Liudmila, Havana prostitutes, are good examples of this deterioration.

Translated by GH

Cubans on the Island Don’t Like Maduro / Iván García

Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro. Source: Washington Post

Ivan Garcia, 2 August 2017 — Not even the threat of rain accompanied by a slight coastal breeze dampens the terrible heat that of this summer in Havana. People on the street are in a bad mood.

The sun burns, public services are inefficient as always, and empty dinner plates mobilize thousands of capital residents to rummage around for provisions in farm markets plagues with shortages, or hard-currency stores that allow a hot meal.

In Cuba, one lives day to day. The leftovers from last night’s dinner serve as the morning’s breakfast. The number one national priority is food. Next, among other things, is escaping the unbearable heat in front of a noisy Chinese fan. continue reading

This is what Mario, a retiree, does, during the afternoon while the grandkids play in the street and in the adjoining apartment a goat bleats before being sacrificed for a Santeria fiesta, as he watches the Telesur channel with indifference, a channel with a shamelessly pro-chavista slant describing the atmosphere in Caracas the day after the elections of the Constituent Assembly.

To the majority of Cubans, the topic of Venezuela sounds like a broken record. It’s like reviving the past of the “marches of the combative people” in front of the former United States Interest Section in Havana — now the American embassy — screaming the demands of Fidel Castro’s latest whim.

To the retired Havanan, Venezuela brings a feeling of deja vu. “It’s the same shit, but with a different collar.  Poor Venezuelans. If this Constituent Assembly thing goes through they’re done for. Wherever Cuban style socialism goes in there’s nothing but a puppet with a head. These systems are impoverished by nature. They just generate pseudo-patriotic discourse, insults to anyone who thinks differently, and societal polarization.”

Mario has a daughter who “serving on a mission in Venezuela. She is in Carabobo and tells me that there are also protests there. She talks with the Venezuelans, although they do not support the opposition, they do not want to know anything about Maduro either. The man is a thug. With those Mao style shirts he puts on and his speeches wanting to imitate Chavez. This is going to blow up in his face. They don’t even want Maduro in the place. The bad thing for us is that when Venezuela is fucked the oil they give us will be hanging by a thread.”

To be sure, people consulted for Diario Las Americas, including four Cubans who worked as aid workers in Venezuela, do not know how the Constituent Assembly can rescue the South American nation from the economic, political and social crisis that the nation is experiencing.

“I do not this Constituent Assembly. What is that thing?” asks astonished Miladys, who has just returned from Guanabo, east of the capital.

For two and a half years, Asniel was a sports coach in the Venezuelan state of Cojedes. “It’s bad. At night you can not go outside. Poverty is huge. I came back a year ago and I think Venezuela, with its lines, shortages, drugs and violence, is much worse than Cuba. There is tremendous corruption among the rulers. Most Venezuelans are disgusted with Maduro, though many do not trust the opposition either, because most opponents are from the wealthy class.”

A Venezuelan couple living in Vargas state often travel five or six times a year to Cuba to sell “this and that, appliances, smartphones. We are mules. With the chavitos (CUC) we earn, we buy dollars and then we sell them in Venezuela,” says the man and adds:

“The situation in Venezuela is ugly, brother. Many people go hungry, because they only get one meal a day. Many people have lost weight. I was a Chavista, but I would not vote for the pelucones (opponents) either. The country is rotten from top to bottom. Government officials are only interested in making money by stealing and profiting from state assets. Crime is brutal. Whatever you have, they snatch it from you. If Maduro remains in power that can end in a civil war. Those who have money seek to emigrate, the poor will be fighting it out among themselves,” says the Venezuelan couple sitting in a park west of Havana.

Delia, a nurse, has bad memories of Venezuela. “I came back in December of last year. Nothing works there. You see the children of 13 and 14 with pistols and even machine guns. In Venezuela, life is worthless. They kill you for anything, a mobile phone, take your money or just for killing. The Chavistas I met work on favoritism and opportunism. They join state institutions to solve their problems. In the hills there are groups that support the government, but some of these types look like hired assassins. They ride on motorbikes armed to the teeth. They support Maduro in exchange for impunity. Venezuela is a very nice country, but the economic crisis and the stubbornness of Maduro have fucked it up.”

Josué, an old man who sweeps parks, smiles shyly when asked about the Constituent Assembly in Venezuela. “I suppose Maduro set up that whole plan to secure himself in power and rule for a long time, like Fifo (Fidel). Hey, when you hear someone talk about socialism and social justice flee, because they just want to be on the throne their whole life.”

Laura, an engineer, believes that Maduro’s Constituent Assembly is going to bring ’peace’ in a simple way, “dismantling the National Assembly, imprisoning most of the opponents and dismissing the prosecutor Luisa Ortega. He (Maduro) wants to imitate Fidel Castro, who implemented a Soviet-style constitution for ever and ever.”

For many on the island, the parallelism between the social processes of Venezuela and Cuba seems homogeneous. It looks so much like what we’ve experienced it’s frightening.

Raul Castro Now a Retiree-in-Waiting / Iván García

Raul Castro (Prensa Latina)

Ivan Garcia, 17 July 2017 — Hunched and wearing an oversized military uniform, helped by his grandson-cum-personal-bodyguard, Raul Castro rose from the beige leather armchair at the presidential desk and with the air of an exhausted old man, and went to the dais to give the closing speech of the conclave.

He placed a folder with several pages under the microphone, adjusted his glasses and in his rough voice began reading the speech that closed the eighth legislature of the National Assembly of People’s Power, an imitation of a Western parliament, one without opposing voices.

Castro II’s speech lasted little more than thirty minutes. As he spoke, Melissa, a high school student, exercised in the living room of her home in front of the flat screen of a 32-inch television. In the courtyard, her father and three of his friends played dominoes. When asked about what he said, the girl shrugs and smiles. continue reading

“I just had the TV on without sound. I was waiting for Raul to finish to see the soap opera. I’m not interested in politics and these meetings are always the same,” says the young woman.

At that time, nine o’clock in the evening in Havana, very few had followed the words of Raul Castro. In shorts and a Miami Heat jersey, Fernando was chatting with two neighbors in the doorway of a bodega.

When they were asked for an assessment of the speech of the country’s president of the country, offered a poke face. “About the speech I an’t tell you, but about the assembly of people’s power I know that, among other things, they talked about how expensive toys are, that more than half of the agricultural harvest is lost in the fields, and that there is a deficit of more than 800 thousand houses,” responds one of the neighbors.

Of 14 people surveyed, 11 said they had not heard Raul’s speech, they did not know that according to government forecasts, the economy grew 1.1% in the first half of the year and confessed that they were not interested in the topics discussed in the sessions of Parliament.

“Dude, it is always the same old blah blah blah. These people (deputies) do not really represent the true interests of the people. They meet twice a year carrying on about the same issues and in the end they do not solve anything. You have to be crazy or smoking something to pay attention to that on television,” says Ignacio, a metalworker.

Carlos, a driver for a bus co-operative, believes that ordinary people “are tired of the same thing. You see the deputies and leaders, most fat and potbellied, who gather, study and propose measures that never improve the quality of life of the people. That is why the majority of Cubans do not follow these meetings.”

And he adds, “I myself work in a transport cooperative, which is a cooperative in name only. The members are puppets. Government institutions are in charge. The State has set up a parallel business with public transport. They give the cooperative a lot of old cars and buses, the workers must pay for the spare parts and then they exploit us like slaves. The biggest percentage of the money is pocketed by the Ministry of Transport and nobody knows where that silver goes.”

Although the economy is taking on water and there are obvious shortages in agricultural markets, foreign exchange stores and pharmacies, a considerable segment of Cubans looks with indifference on the national political landscape.

“There is chronic fatigue. Apathy consumes a good part of the population. They do not want to know anything about politics. They are tired of everything. What they want is to live as well as possible and the youngest want, if given a chance, to emigrate. That apathy favors the regime because it governs without any upsets,” says a sociologist.

During his speech, Raúl Castro hammered his strategy of doing things without any hurry, so as not to fall into errors when promulgating new measures. In a rare exercise of self-criticism, he acknowledged he himself was at fault for several erroneous decisions. He emphasized capital control of new businesses and greater control of private entrepreneurship, although he stressed that the State supports and intends to expand self-employment and service cooperatives.

The pace of the reforms is what bothers Leonel, owner of a cafe west of Havana. “Raul does not lack grub and everything he needs is assured, so he makes changes with that slowness. But on the street people want reforms to be done more quickly. Right now I have grandchildren and everything is still at a standstill.”

Of the fourteen people surveyed, they noted that Castro II did not mention the resignation of his position next year.

“With these people (the regime) you have to be careful. Before, Raúl repeated that in 2018 he was withdrawing from power. Now that he is a short timer, he did not say so. At the end you will see that for any situation, whether because of Venezuela or an alleged US threat, the man is still in office,” says Diego, who works in a pizzeria.

Seven months before the hypothetical date of abdication of the Cuban autocrat, no one can certify what will happen. Although the presumed retirement of Raúl Castro will not prevent that a military junta continues administering the Island.

The end of Castroism is not near.

 Translated by Jim

"Since 2013, 7 of every 10 Cuban dissidents have settled in the US" / Iván García

Political map of the United States taken from the Internet

Ivan Garcia, 24 July 2017 — Cuba’s incipient civil society, independent journalism and political activism on the island is starting to find the cupboard is bare.

According to a US embassy official in Havana, “Seven out of ten dissidents chose to settle in the United States after the Cuban government’s new immigration policy in January 2013.”

The diplomat clarified that, “Some stayed when attending events, workshops or university courses they’d been invited to. Others, with multiple-entry visas to the United States, simply boarded an airplane and when they arrived in the US they took advantage of the Cuban Adjustment Act.” continue reading

To this slow leakage, we have to add the opposition figures who leave Cuba under the political refugee program.

The cause of the migration of dissidents is varied.

It ranges from the Cuban Special Services repression of dissidents and free journalists, constant detentions, searches and seizures of their tools of the trade, to beatings and threats of prison sentences.

And believe me, the Castro brothers’ autocracy plays rough. A law, known as the Gag Law, has been in force since February 1999, under which public dissent can results in 20 years or more of imprisonment, whether of dissidents, journalists or state officials.

The peaceful opposition, which emerged in the late 1970s and which from its beginnings has been committed to democracy, respect for human rights, freedom of expression and a multi-party system, has been dismantled by the regime’s permanent repression, forcing many dissidents to choose exile as a way out.

It is a reasonable decision. We Cubans have no vocation for martyrdom. But this fleeing of brave people, capable of facing the powerful machinery of a totalitarian state, has been difficult to replace in the short term.

In spite of its repeated economic failures, Castroism maintains strong social control due to the absence of honest intellectuals, academics and journalists committed to the people who, from their official or individual positions, serve as counterpart to authoritarian outrages.

When Fidel Castro seized power in January 1959, a considerable percentage of the cream of society, including talented Cubans who had proven themselves capable of creating wealth, and also those who in their early days fought against Fidelism using their own violent methods, opted for the diaspora.

They decided to jump ship, leaving the bearded helmsman behind. Perhaps they thought that the Revolution would be a matter of a few months, that soon it would fail and they would return to save the mother country.

It was precisely this mass emigration that paved the way for the establishment of an almost perfect autocracy, which sealed all legal channels to other political viewpoints and allowed the government to maintain a swollen Praetorian guard. A Praetorian guard that currently holds in check the minority and weak opposition.

The Castros’ Cuba was left without a powerful national bourgeoisie, without successful entrepreneurs and without a seasoned political class, capable of confronting the president in all areas.

At the same time, State Security has been very adept at short-circuiting any bridge between the opposition and the citizenry. That is why on the Island we do not see protest marches with thousands of participants or a general strike.

Of course, the work of dissidents has also failed, particularly those who have emerged in recent years, and unlike their predecessors, are more focused on selling headlines in Florida newspapers than listening to their neighbors, showing an interest in their problems and trying to get them to increase and strengthen the membership of their groups

Right now, in Cuba, all the conditions exist for the emergence of a truly independent trade union movement or an association of private entrepreneurs that demands their rights from the rulers.

The miserable wages, the brakes on self-sufficiency, the daily hardships of families, the abandonment of old and retired people, the increase of drunks and beggars, the failure of the regime in the economy and agriculture, housing construction and the creation of quality services, are powerful reasons to replace the olive green state.

The discontent is in full bloom. Just stand in line for a few minutes, walk the streets of neighborhoods away from the tourist lights, or ride a bus or a shared or private taxi. Today, a large segment of the population openly criticizes the regime, something that did not happen three decades ago.

The vast majority of people want better lives, without so many material shortages, they want fair pensions and salaries and to be able to count on the power of the vote that allows them to dethrone inept politicians.

But there is a lack of dissident leaders capable of bringing together that mass that is now invisible, fearful and faking loyalty.

Many opponents and activists have left their country, almost all of them to the United States. And those who remain on the island do not seem to be up for the work of changing the state of things.

Some prefer to spend much of their time in meetings and conferences abroad. Others, “live on horseback” between Havana and Miami. And Cuba and the Cubans? Fine thanks.

Without Water in Havana / Iván García

Photo: Havana Times

Iván García, 10 June 2017 — The heat is terrible. Not even a light breeze in the wide entry to Carmen Street, by Plaza Roja de la Vibora, thirty minutes from Havana centre.

Reinaldo, an old chap, depressed, seated on a wall facing the water tank of the building where he lives, waits for the water to flow.  “On the Havana Channel news they said that we will have water from six in the morning on Wednesday May 31st, until six in the evening”, he says without taking his eyes off the tank.

All his neighbours passing by ask him the same question. “Rey, has the water come on yet?”.  With a weary voice, the self-appointed water guard replies: “Not yet, but I’m sure it will in a minute”. continue reading

The neighbours don’t hide their ill-humour and vent their annoyance insulting the government’s performance. “These people (the government) are pricks.  How long do us Cubans have to put up with having our lives screwed up?” A retired teacher considers that “if they had kept the water pipes maintained, there wouldn’t have been any leaks”.

The official press tries to be positive. As always. It talks about “the efforts of the Havana water workers who are working 24 hours a day to repair the leaks”.

And they blow a smoke screen. “After the repair work the water pressure across the city will be a lot better”, says a spokesman on the radio in a tenor voice. But the man in the street is sceptical.

“When the government takes something from us, that’s the cherry on the cake. They snatched a pound of rice from each of us to give to Vietnam during the war. The Vietnam war finished 42 years ago, and now the Vietnamese are sending rice to us. The government never gave us back the pound of rice. That’s how it always is, they take us by the hand and run off. I am absolutely sure that, because of the fuel shortage and the drought, they will extend it to a three day water cycle in the capital”, is the angry opinion of a man who tells us he has a friend in Havana Water.

The negative rumours fly about. Some worse than others But few of them are good news. Emilio, from Santiago, visiting Havana,  tells us: “it’s worse for us in Santiago, my friend”. In the city centre it’s every eight days and on the outskirts every thirty or forty. All we’ve been able to do is learn to wash ourselves with half a bucket of water and walk around in dirty clothes, which get washed every two weeks.

Juan Manuel, a hydraulic engineer, explains that “the water problem in Havana is pretty complicated. Instead of new pipelines they have put in 748.6 km of old tubing. The company repairs one section, but then the water pressure damages a section which has not yet been repaired. On top of that there is the fact that their workmanship is not of the highest quality. And their old fashioned technology along with years of no maintenance complicate things further. It’s a complete waste of time.

A pipework and drainage specialist considers that “the government wants to improve the water quality and the pipe network. But they did no maintenance for decades. 60% of the water distributed through the capital leaks away. That figure has now fallen to 20%. It’s a complex task which needs millions of dollars and the government hasn’t got any money”.

In the last seven years, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have between them donated about 50 million dollars.  “But it’s not enough. Don’t forget that the problem of out of date water pipes and drainage is not only in Havana. It affects the whole country. It’s obviously the government’s fault. When things were going well, they didn’t provide the necessary resources. And now, with the economic crisis, the reduced quantity of oil coming from Venezuela, and the drought, have made it more difficult to sort out the problem”, said our specialist, and he adds:

“Ideally we need to completely change our water management strategy.  Introduce renewable sustainable recycling methods for the water supply and for dirty water. Build a new aqueduct for sea water desalination and increase the existing capacity.

There are various water distributors in Havana. The main ones are  Albear Aqueduct, opened in 1893, the Conductora Sur, and El Gato. But, because of the deterioration of various sections of pipework, there are frequent fractures.

The water supply varies from one part of the city to another. In some parts they get water every day, at specific times. In most other places, on alternate days. And in different districts on the outskirts you get a three or four days’ supply.

The deficit in the precious liquid leads the Habaneros to increase their  water storage capacity by using tanks constructed without worrying about technical specifications or guaranteeing its drinking quality or ensuring they are protected against becoming breading zones for the Aedes Aegypti mosquito which spreads dengue and chikungunya.

“If you extend the water cycle in Havana, you increase the extent of stagnant water without adequate protection and increase the risk of insect-spread disease and get more rats. With less hygiene and reservoirs containing contaminated water you open the door to epidemics “, is the point made by an official of Hygiene and Epidemiology.

But the biggest worry for families like José’s, with his wife and three children, is having enough water to take a shower and run the toilet. In this heat, their mother has to wash with half a bucket of water and she cant flush the toilet”, José tell us.

Some places have it worse. Regla, a pensioner who lives in a run-down room  in a plot in Old Havana, the same as 170 thousand families in the capital, hasn’t received drinkable water in her home for years. “I pay 100 pesos to a water seller for him to fill two 55 gallon tanks which I have in my room. That lasts me a week usually. But with the water crisis, the man put up the price to 160 pesos. And I only get a coupon book for 200 pesos”.

The price charged by the water tanker trucks  has also shot up. “When there are no supply problems, a tanker charges 30 CUC. Now you have to pay 40 or 50 CUC. But you don’t get any, even for ready money,” is what the proprietor of a cafe selling local specialities tells us.

Food business owners have had to shut at certain hours because of the lack of water. “I hope they sort it out quickly, because sales have gone up 200%, as many people prefer to eat in the street so as to save water in their houses” says the self employed man.

According to the government media, water distribution will be back to normal on Thursday June 1st. But lots of Habaneros don’t believe it. ” They have lied to us so often that when they tell the truth, you always doubt it”, says Reinaldo, the guy living in La Vibora, who, from early morning on waits by the tank for the water to flow.

On June 1st precisely, the government announced an extraordinary session of the National Assembly of People’s Power, Cuba’s parliament. The Cuban in the street suspects that there will be more economic stringencies and they will be obliged to tighten their belts. Again.

Translated by GH

Salaries in Cuba are a Joke / Iván García

Source: El Nuevo Herald

Ivan Garcia, 15 July 2017 — Even the street dogs, ragged and hungry, take cover under the roofs in Havana when the clock marks 1 PM.

The sun burns and humidity gives you sweat marks on your clothes. After noon the Havana’s street look like the Saharan desert. People take cover in their houses and those out walking are just desperate go into any store, cafeteria or a state bank with air conditioning to get a blessed shot of air from the refrigerated climate.

In that desolate tropical picture of a July noon in Cuba, where everyone flees from the steel heat, Antonio, along with his workers brigade, works asphalting streets in the district of Diez de Octubre. continue reading

After having two boiled eggs for lunch, along with white rice and a watery black bean soup, Antonio, places against his shoulder, as if it was a baseball bat, the heavy pneumatic hammer and starts breaking streets.

“I work twelve hours a day. Nobody likes repairing and asphalting streets. Almost all of us that work here are ex-prisioners, incurable alcoholics or mentally impaired. I make the equivalent to US $50 (approximately 1,250 Cuban pesos) a month, sometimes a little more if we meet the plan,” explains Antonio.

Even when his salary is almost double to the average in Cuba ($740 Cuban pesos), the money that Antonio makes for his hard work doesn’t cover a quarter of his basic family’s needs. “I have two kids, 12 and 14 years old, and the salary is not enough to buy them clothes and shoes, nor take them out on the weekends. It is enough just for two plates of hot food on the table every day. We don’t eat what we’d like, but rather the most economic.”

Antonio, a black and burly man, was able to get work as a doorman in a private bar. “Like many Cubans, I get into any business that gives me money. Fixing the streets is exhausting work, but I can’t stop it because it’s a steady salary. In addition, I don’t know how to do anything else.”

In other countries, the maintenance of public roads is done during the night time, among other things to help with the heat during the day. But in Cuba, the supposedly socialist Mecca with a human face, it is done with a sun from hell.

The olive green regime is a complex game of mirrors. They sell the social justice narrative, love for the people and productive successes that are only met on the television newsrooms.

If you really want to understand the authentic military power that governs Cuba, please, stop at the salary of their workers. Since Fidel Castro came into power, using military force in January 1959, a part of one’s salary, between 5% and 9%, was deducted to pay for education and universal health care.

The majority of the Cubans agree on keeping their taxes to support the health care and education. But with the passing of time, the galloping inflation, the lack of productivity of the communist system and the bloated apparatus of the state system, taxation feeds on sales of goods and workers’ salaries as if they were a sandwich.

That salary of state workers, which is 90% of the labor force in Cuba, is joke in bad taste. The minimum monthly salary is 225 Cuban pesos or approximately US$10.

With that money people pay for the lean “basic basket” that the State gives to all people born in Cuba: 7 lbs. of rice, 5 lbs. sugar, 20 ounces of beans, half a pound of vegetable oil, a pound of chicken, a pack of pasta and a small piece of daily bread of approximately 80 grams.

The described merchandise costs no more than 20 Cuban pesos (or less than US$1). But it only lasts for one week. The rest of the month, the ones that earn minimum salary, like retirees, have to do miracles to eat.

Then you have the electricity bill. It’s very expensive. A family with a television, two fans, a fridge, a rice cooker, a blender and a dozen light bulbs pays between 30-40 Cuban pesos monthly.

If you have air conditioning and more than one TV in the house, the consumption increases to 300 Cuban pesos per month. Except the high level government leaders — and no one knows exactly how much they make — the next highest paid salaries are earned by doctors or ETECSA (the only telecommunications company) engineers. A medical specialist could earn the equivalent of US$60. For an ETECSA professional, adding the hard currency bonus, it can be close to US$90.

But is that enough to support a family? Of course not. Ask Migdalia, the engineer. As an answer, the young professional shows a pile of paper full of numbers and expenses.

“I am a single mother to a son. For food for two people it costs between 1200-1300 Cuban pesos. The rest, it just evaporates in school snacks. It’s not even enough to pay the electricity, buy books or any other entertainment. My father lives in Miami, he sends me US$200 monthly and once a year pays for a week-long vacation in a hotel in Varadero. Although my salary is one of the highest paid in the country, it doesn’t let me have a quality nutritional diet. To buy clothes, go to the hair salon or go to dinner at a paladar (private restaurant) you have to make money under the table,” explains Migdalia.

In Cuba, that euphemism translates to a hard and simple aphorism: stealing from the State. “It is the only way to get to month end, fix the house that is in shambles or go to the beach with the family,” confesses Orestes, a port worker.

A national joke defines truthfully the non-existent social contract between the salaried workers and the regime: “people pretend to work and the government pretends to pay us.” It’s never been said better.

Translated by: LYD

Cuba Awaits New Trump Proposals / Iván García

Outside of the US Embassy in Havana. Taken by 14ymedio.

Ivan Garcia, 14 June 2017 — What you lose last is hope. And those who have plans to immigrate to the United States maintain bulletproof optimism.

Close to a small park in Calzada street, next to Rivero’s funeral home, dozens of restless people await their appointment for the consular interview at the American Embassy located at the Havana’s Vedado district.

Ronald, a mixed-race man of almost six feet, requested a tourist visa to visit his mother in Miami. Before going to the embassy he bathed with white flowers and sounded a maraca gourd before the altar of the Virgen de la Caridad, Cuba’s Patron Saint, wishing that they would approve his trip. continue reading

Outside the diplomatic site, dozens of people await restlessly. Each one of them has a story to tell. Many have had their visas denied up to five times while some are there for the first time with the intent to get an American visa; they rely on astrology or some other witchcraft.

Daniela is one of those people. “Guys, the astral letter says that Trump instructed the embassy people to give the biggest possible number of visas,” she says to others also waiting.

Rumors grow along the line of those who read in social media — never in the serious news — that Trump, in his next speech in Miami, will reverse the reversal of the “wet foot-dry foot” policy.

In a park on Linea Street with Wi-Fi  internet service, next to the Camilo Cienfuegos clinic, two blocks from the United States Embassy, Yaibel comments with a group of internet users that a friend who lives in Florida told him that Trump was going to issue open visa to all Cubans.

The most ridiculous theories circulate around the city among those who dream to migrate. The facts or promises made by Trump to close the faucet of immigration mean nothing to them.

Guys like Josue holds on to anything that makes him think that his luck will change. “That’s the gossip going on. Crazy Trump will open all doors to Cubans… Dude we are the only country in Latin America that lives under a dictatorship. If they give us carte blanch three or four million people will emigrate. The Mariel Boatlift will be small in comparison. That’s the best way to end this regime. These people — the government — will be left alone here”… opines the young man.

In a perfect domino effect, some people echo the huge fantasy. “Someone told me that they were going to offer five million working visas to Cubans. The immigrants would be located in those states where they need laborers. The people would need to come back in around a year, since the Cuban Adjustment Act will be eliminated,” says Daniela, who doesn’t remember where she heard such a delirious version.

Now, let’s talk seriously. If something Donald Trump has showed, aside from being superficial and erratic, it is being a president profoundly anti-immigrant. But more than a few ordinary Cubans want to assert the contrary.

The ones who wish to immigrate are the only segment that awaits with optimism good news from Trump. The spectrum of opinion of the rest of the Cubans ranges from indifference to concern.

In the local dissidence sector, the ones who believed that Trump was going to open his wallet or go back to Obama’s strategy towards dissent, became more pessimistic after the White House announced a decrease of $20 million dollars for civil society programs.

“Those groups that obtained money thanks to the Department of State are pulling their hair out. But the ones that receive financing from the Cuban exiles are not that unprotected,” indicates a dissident who prefers to remain anonymous.

The Palace of the Revolution in Havana is probably the place where Trump’s pronouncements are awaited with the greatest impatience. The autocracy, dressed in olive green, has tried to be prudent with the magnate from New York.

Contrary to Fidel Castro’s strategy, which at the first sign of change would prepare a national show and lengthy anti-imperialist speeches, Raul’s regime has toned that down as much as possible.

In certain moments they have criticized him. However, without offensiveness and keeping the olive branch since the government is betting on continuing the dialogue with the United Estates, to lift the embargo, to receive millions of gringo tourists and to begin business with American companies.

Official analysts are waiting for Trump to act from his entrepreneur side. The autocracy is offering business on a silver plate, as long as it is with state companies.

According to a source that works with Department of Foreign trade, “The ideal would be to continue the roadmap laid out by Obama. With the situation in Venezuela and the internal economic crisis, the official wish is that relations with the United States deepen and millions in investments begins. The government will give in, as long as it doesn’t feel pressured with talk about Human Rights.

“I hope that Trump is pragmatic. If he opens fire and returns to the scenario of the past, those here will climb back into the trenches. Confrontation didn’t yield anything in 55 years. However, in only two years of Obama’s policy, aside from the panic of many internal leaders, there was a large popular acceptance,” declares the source.

In Havana’s streets Trump is not appreciated. “That guy is insane. Dense and a cretin and that’s all. If he sets things back, to me it’s all the same. The majority of ordinary Cubans don’t benefit from the agreements made on December 17. Of course, I think it was the government’s fault,” says Rey Angel, worker.

And the reestablishment of the diplomatic relations and the extension of Obama’s policy to get closer to the the island’s private workforce, caused more notice in the press than concrete changes.

The people consulted do not believe that Trump will reduce the amount of money sent in remittances by Cubans overseas, or the number of trips home by Cubans living in the United States. “If he does, it will affect many people who live off the little money and things that family living in the North (United States) can send”, says a lady waiting in line at Western Union.

The rupture of the Obama strategy will decidedly affect the military regime. And it looks like the White House will fire its rockets against the flotation line. But anything can happen. Trump is just Trump.

Translated by: LYD

How Cubans See the Crisis in Venezuela / Iván García

Leopoldo López, kisses the Venezuelan flag shortly after arriving at his home in Caracas. After serving nearly 4 years of a 13 year sentence for “arson and conspiracy” he was sent home under house arrest.

Iván García,  11 July 2017 —  After painting the facades of several buildings along 10 de Octobre street, the workers of the brigade shelter from the terrifying heat in doorways, eating lunch, having a smoke or simply chatting.

These days, in Havana’s La Vibora neighborhood, in the area between Red Square and the old Bus Terminal, there is a hive of workers dedicated to converting the one-time terminal into a cooperative taxi base.

The work includes asphalting the surrounding streets and a quick splash of cheap paint on the buildings along the street. continue reading

“They say that Raul Castro or Miguel Diaz-Canel is going to come to visit the Luis de La Puente Uceda Limited Access Surgical Hospital and to inaugurate the taxi base,” says a worker sweating buckets.

When they finish talking about the poor performance of the national baseball team against an independent league in Canada, a group of workers comment on the street protest that have been going on for more than a month, led by the opposition in Venezuela, and how much the economy and energy picture of Cuba could be affected.

Yander, in dark blue overalls, shrugs his shoulders and responds, “I don’t follow politics much. But I hear on the news is that place (Venezuela) is on fire. According to what I understood, the Venezuela right is burning everything in their path. They’re as likely to burn a market as they are some guy for being a chavista [supporter of Maduro’s government]. If Maduro falls off his horse, things are going to get ugly in Cuba. The oil comes from there

Opinions among the workers, students, food workers consulted about Venezuela, demonstrates a profound disinterest in political information among a wide sector of the citizenry.

Younger people are active in social networks. But they pass on political content. Like Susana, a high school student, who with her smartphone is taking a selfie which eating chicken breasts in a recently opened private care, to post later on Instagram. When asked about the Venezuela challenge, she answers at length.

“You can’t fight with a political grindstone. What are you going to resolve with that. You’re not going to change the world and you can make problems for yourself. I heard about Venezuela on [the government TV channel] Telesur, but I don’t know why they started the protests. Nor do I know why there have been so many deaths. The only thing I know is that Cuba is strongly tied to Venezuela by oil. And if the government changes, if those who come, if they are capitalists, they will stop sending us oil. So I want Maduro to remain in power,” explains Susana.

Not many on the island analyze the crisis in Venezuela in a wider context. The South American nation is trapped between the worst government management, a socialist model that doesn’t work, and the hijacking of democratic institutions.

Ordinary Cubans don’t know to what point the Castro regime is involved in the design of the the local and continentals strategies of Chavismo. Opinion in Cuba is fueled by a myopic official press and Telesur, a propagandistic television channel created with the petrodollars of Hugo Chavez and Rafael Correa.

Except for specialists and people who look for information in other sources, most of the Cuban population believes that the violence originates with the opposition, classified as terrorists and fascists by the official media.

They know nothing of the fracture within chavismo itself, as in the case of Attorney General Luisa Ortega or the former Interior Minister Miguel Torres. Nor that at least 23 of the 81 who have died in more than ninety days of protests, was due the excessive use of violence by the Bolivarian National Guard.

Alexis, a private taxi driver, believes that the state press sweeps under the carpet any news that shows the brutality of the chavista regime. His concern is that “if they’re fucked, we’re fucked too. Man, then the blackouts will start, the factory closures, and eating twice a day will be a luxury. There’s no certainty about the origins of what is happening in Venezuela. I suppose the Venezuelans would like to free themselves from a system like ours. If they manage to do it then Cuba isn’t going to know what to do with itself.”

A wide segment of Cubans think that if the street protests in Venezuela end up deposing Maduro, given the domino effect, hard times will return to the Cuban economy.

“These people (the regime) have never done things well. That is why they are always passing the hat to survive or live off favors from others. We have not been able to made the earth produce. Everything we have we export. We are a leech. Thanks to the Venezuelan oil and the dollars that come from relatives in Miami, the country has not sunk into absolute misery,” points our Geraldo, an elderly retiree.

Geraldo clarifies, “It’s not out of selfishness, political blindness or love of Maduro that many Cubans are betting on the continuity of chavismo. It’s pure survival instinct.”

And the fact is that the economy has not yet hit bottom. Statistics and predictions forecast new adjustments and an economic setback if there is a change of government in Miraflores Palace.

Cuba is still not at the level of Haiti, the poorest country in Latin American, but it is headed that way. As the former USSR was, Venezuela is our lifeline.

Trafficking in Goods, a Strategy to Survive in Cuba / Iván García

Source: Diario Las Américas

Iván García, 28 June 2017 — On Havana there are illegal stores for all tastes. Pirated jeans at 20 CUC, copies of Nike shoes at 40 CUC and imitation Swiss watches at 50 CUC. People with higher purchasing power mark the difference. By catalog, they buy fashions, smartphones, LED lights, Scotch whiskey, Spanish wines.

And although the General Customs of the Republic of Cuba applies retrograde and severe laws on the importing of merchandise, rampant corruption always opens a gateway to singular private commerce. Although there are no exact figures, it is calculated that it moves twice as much money on the island as does foreign investment.

Let me present Rolando, the fictitious name of a guy who has been a ‘mule’ for three years. “My grandparents live in Miami and to supplement their pension, they became ‘mules’. They took the orders to customers’ homes, whether it was clothing, medicine, household goods or dollars. When travel abroad became flexible in 2013, I obtained a multiple-entry visa for the United States. Every year I travel seven or eight times and I bring stuff either for family use or to resell. All for a value of four to five thousand dollars.” continue reading

The complicated Customs regulations only allow Cubans to import certain goods once a year and to pay the customs fees in Cuban pesos — rather than convertible pesos, each of which is worth 25 times as much — but by means of bribes under the table the provisions of the law can be evaded.

Yolanda, an assumed name, is dedicated to bringing garments and hair products. “In Cuba, the stake fucks anyone who follows the letter of the law. This is the case for Cubans living in other countries when they send things by mail: they can only send three kilograms and if the package exceeds that weight, every additional kilogram is taxed at 20 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC). A real abuse.

“What do those of us who dedicate ourselves to this business do? We have good contacts in Customs and so we can take all the stuff through. You pay the people according to what you bring. If you bring in goods valued at $10,000, for example, you have to give them $200 and a “present” which can be a flat screen TV, a home appliance, or some clothing.”

According to Yolanda, “Palmolive, Colgate, Gillette or Dove toiletries sell like hot cakes in Cuba. If you buy in the free zone of Colon, Panama, you earn a little more. In Miami, it depends on the place: in small stores and wholesale markets you get more for you money. Gillette deodorants purchased wholesale will come out at $1.50 and in Havana they will be sold at 5 CUC (roughly $5 US).

“An appliance or television is not profitable if you buy it at Best Buy, you have to buy it in Chinese stores or have a contact that sells it wholesale. The problem of the electrical appliances is that they weigh a lot, that’s why they are shipped by boat.

“With the exception of certain items that my regular customers order from me, the rest I buy to sell in quantity to the resellers. On a trip, apart from recovering expenses, I can earn up to 800 CUC. And I am a new ’mule’ in this market, the ones that spend more time, they earn three times more, because they bring more expensive items such as car parts and air conditioning equipment.”

Several ‘mules’ consulted believe that the best places to buy merchandise are Panama, Miami, Peru, Ecuador and Mexico. “Moscow is expensive for the cost of the plane ticket. But if you have the way to bring into the country large quantities of parts and components for cars and motorcycles, you earn a lot of money. Any trip leaves a percentage of profits that ranges from 30 to 100 percent,” says Rolando.

Recently, the Wall Street Journal published a report on the traffic of automobile parts between Moscow and Havana: “They travel 13 hours, sleep crowded in emigre apartments and ask for borrowed coats and boots to rummage and bargain in a cold weather looking for used parts of the Russian capital. But do the accounts: a Lada car of the Soviet era in good conditions sells on the Island for 14 thousand dollars.”

The current collection of Soviet-era vintage cars has made the supply of parts and components for these cars into a highly profitable business. “In Russia there are few Moskoviches, Ladas and Volgas manufactured in last century still running. With the help of Cubans residing in Moscow, full cars are bought for the equivalent of 300 or 500 dollars and scrapping them for pieces increases the values tremendously. There are also small businesses where you can packaged new parts,” explains Osiel, dedicated to the selling of car parts bought in Russia.

It may seem like an unimportant business, but a Soviet-era car, with an American chassis and parts from up to ten different nations, costs $10,000 to $20,000 in Cuba.

In the Island you find ‘mules’ specializing in the most diverse branches. “I only buy smart phones, tablets, PCs and laptops. After paying the respective bribe, in a single trip I bring in up to ten phones, five or six tablets, two PCs and four laptops. The profits can exceed 3,000 CUC. Smartphones are a gold mine. Companies buy them, then through payment they activate to unlock them and there are those who know how to ’crack’ them. In Havana, the iPhone 7 or Samsung 8 is cheaper than in Miami,” says Sergio.

At the beginning, the ‘mules’ started as a business managed by Cubans living in the United States and they moved any amount of money and stuff. The parcels are delivered personally to people in their homes.

After the olive-green state did away with the so-called White Card — the travel permit you use to have to have — that blocked Cubans from traveling freely, thousands of compatriots on the island decided to become ’mules’ and started to traffic in goods.

According to Rolando, “It has many points in its favor: you do not work for the government and do not depend their shitty wages. On each trip, you earn a ticket that makes your life more comfortable, you disconnect, meet people and travel to clean cities and well-stocked stores. And the government has not opened fire on the ‘mules’ as much as they have on the self-employed.”

In addition, they don’t pay taxes to the state for their underground business.

Cuban Government Fires Off One Lie After Another / Iván García

Almost a million Havanans have been affected by water shortages for more than a month. Taken from Diario las Americas

Ivan Garcia, 3 July 2017 — The fan stopped turning around 3:30 in the morning, when in the middle of a heat wave, a black out forced Ricardo, his wife and their two children to sleep on a mat on the balcony of their apartment in the Lawton neighborhood, a thirty minute drive from central Havana.

Several areas were left dark and lit only by candles and lanterns, dozens of neighbors complained with rude words and sharp criticisms of of the poor performance of state electricity and water companies.

The blackout lasted for seven hours. “I couldn’t iron my children’s school uniforms and they are in the midst of final exams. I sent them to school in street clothes. Nor could my husband and I go to work. When I the light came on, after ten in the morning, we lay in bed for a while. The situation is already so bad no one can stand it. It’s one problem after another. The water crisis, which is still affecting us, public transportation is the worst, food prices don’t stop rising and now this black out in the middle of this terrible heat,” says Zoraida, Ricardo’s wife. continue reading

Almost a month after a break in one of the main pipes that brings potable water to Havana, and then an intense information campaign on the part of the office press, filled with justifications and an exaggerated optimism, where radio, TV and newspapers report the hours there will be water in each neighborhood, after the repairs, completed two weeks ago, and with the promise that service would gradually return to normal in the different zones of the capital, they are still suffering the affects and the media doesn’t offer any explanations.

“Some 200,000 people are still affected and are receiving water every three days. By Thursday, June 22, it was expected to regularize the service, but some problems have arisen,” said an official of Aguas de La Habana in the municipality Diez de Octubre, the most populated of the capital’s districts.

The affected Havanans don’t stop complaining. “In my house, the tank that we have on the roof does not have the capacity for the water to last three days. Although we try to save it, in the bathroom, kitchen and laundry, the water that we are able to collect is spent in two days. The government comes up with one lie after another. First it was reported that the break was a matter of a week, at most two. And we’re going on for a month now. Instead of responding with so much noise to Trump’s measures, they should focus on improving the living conditions of Cubans,” complains Mario, a resident of Luyanó, a working-class neighborhood in the south of the city.

Rumors about the resurgence of the perennial economic crisis that Cubans are experiencing, spread throughout the city. “I have it on good authority, from a friend of my brother who is in the party, I know that by summer the government is going to make new cuts in companies’ fuel consumption, and they will close unproductive factories and industries  until further notice. The scarcity is noticeable. The state farm markets are empty and the shortages in the hard currency stores are obvious. It is said that in the upcoming session of the National Assembly of People’s Power, on July 14, they are going to announce new measures of cuts. Thing looks ugly,” says Miriam, housewife, at the entrance to a bodega in Cerro municipality.

Diario Las Américas could not verify those comments and rumors.

A banking official who prefers anonymity believes that the country’s financial situation is “quite delicate.” He says, “There is not enough currency liquidity. Even payments of the various debts contracted with foreign companies are not being made. Tourism, which contributes about $3 billion in revenue, devours almost 60 percent of that revenue in the purchase of inputs. Remittances are the lifeline, but with shortages in foreign exchange stores and high prices, many people are spending their convertible pesos on the black market or in the parallel trade of the ’mules’ that bring products from abroad. A large part of that money is not being returned to the state coffers, as people involved in these activities either save it or use it as an investment in their business.”

To minimize reality, the olive-green autocracy uses anti-imperialist discourse and condemnations of Donald Trump’s new policy of restrictions as a smokescreen.

“That narrative has always worked. But people on the street know that this discourse is exhausted. They can’t justify all the national wreckage and the poor performance of the public services with the economic blockade of the United States nor with the recent aggressive policy of Trump. Cubans are at their limit with everything. It is not advisable to think that Cubans will always be silent. Situations such as blackouts and cuts in the water supply make people angry and their reactions could be unpredictable,” warns a sociologist.

With finances in the red, an economic recession that threatens to turn into a crisis of incalculable consequences, and grandiose development plans that sound like science fiction to ordinary Cubans, the authorities are facing a dangerous precipice.

Six decades of selling illusions and with unfulfilled promises are already coming to an end. And it could be less than happy.

If Trump Ends Our Remittances? / Iván García

Western Union branch in Las Tunas. Photo by Alberto Méndez Castelló, taken from Cubanet.

Ivan Garcia, 8 July 2017 — Without too much caution, the CUPET tanker truck painted green and white begins to deposit fuel in the underground basement of a gas station located at the intersection of Calle San Miguel and Mayía Rodríguez, just in front of Villa Marista, headquarters of State Security, in the quiet Sevillano neighborhood, south of Havana.

The gas station, with four pumps, belongs to the Ministry of the Interior and all its workers, even civilians, are part of the military staff. “To start working in a military center or company, be it FAR (Revolutionary Armed Forces) or MININT (Ministry of the Interior), besides investigating you in your neighborhood and demanding certain qualities, you have to be a member of the Party or the UJC (Union of Young Communists),” says one employee, who adds: continue reading

“But things have relaxed and not all those working in military companies are 100 percent revolutionary. And like most jobs in Cuba, there are those who make money stealing fuel, have family in the United States and only support the government in appearances.”

Let’s call him Miguel. He is a heavy drinker of beer and a devotee of Santeria.

“I worked at the gas station six years ago. It is true that they ask for loyalty to the system and you have to participate in the May Day marches so as not to stand out. But it is not as rigorous as three decades ago, according to the older ones, when you could not have religious beliefs or family in yuma (the USA). I do not care about politics, I’m a vacilator. I have two sons in Miami, and although I look for my shillings here, if Trump cuts off the remittances to those of us who work in military companies, Shangó will tell me what to do,” he says and laughs.

If there is something that worries many Cubans it is the issue of family remittances. When the Berlin Wall collapsed and the blank check of the former USSR was canceled, Fidel Castro’s Cuba entered a spiraling economic crisis that 28 years later it still has not been able to overcome.

Inflation roughly hits the workers and retirees with a worthless and devalued currency, barely enough to buy a few roots and fruits and to pay the bills for the telephone, water and electricity.

Although the tropical autocracy does not reveal statistics on the amount of remittances received in Cuba, experts say that the figures fluctuate between 2.5 and 3 billion dollars annually. Probably more.

Foreign exchange transactions of relatives and friends living abroad, particularly in the United States, are the fundamental support of thousands of Cuban families. It is the second national industry and there is a strong interest in managing that hard currency.

“Since the late 1970s, Fidel Castro understood the usefulness of controlling the shipments of dollars from the so-called gusanos (’worms,’ as those who left were called) to their families. When he allowed the trips of the Cuban Community to the Island, the Ministry of the Interior (MININT) had already mounted an entire industry to capture those dollars.

“Look, you can not be naive. In Cuba, whenever foreign exchange comes in, the companies that manage it are military, or the Council of State, like Palco. That money is the oxygen of the regime. And they use it to buy equipment, motorcycles and cars for the G-2 officials who repress the opponents and to construct hotels, rather than to acquire medicines for children with cancer. And since there is no transparency, they can open a two or three million dollar account in a tax haven,” says an economist.

The dissection of the problem carried out by the openly anti-Castro exile and different administrations of the White House is correct. The problem is to find a formula for its application so that the stream of dollars does not reach the coffers of the regime.

“The only way for the government not to collect dollars circulating in Cuba, would be Trump completely prohibiting transfers of money. It’s the only way to fuck them. I do not think there is another. But using money as a weapon of blackmail to make people demand their rights, I find deplorable. I also have the rope around my neck. I want democratic changes, better salaries, and I have no relatives in Miami. But I do not have the balls to go out in the street and demand them,” says an engineer who works at a military construction company.

Twenty years ago, on June 27, 1997, the Internal Dissident Working Group launched La Patria es de Todos (The Nation Belongs to Everyone), a document that raised rumors within the opposition itself. Economist Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello, along with the late Félix Antonio Bonne Carcassés, Vladimiro Roca Antúnez and lawyer René Gómez Manzano, tried to get those Cubans who received dollars to commit to not participate in government activities or vote in the elections, all of them voluntary.

It is true that the double standards of a large segment of Cubans upset the human rights activists. With total indifference, in the morning they can participate in an act of repudiation against the Ladies in White and in the afternoon they connect to the internet so that a family member expedites the paperwork for them to emigrant or recharges their mobile phone account.

This hypocrisy is repulsive. But these people are not repressive. Like millions of citizens on the island, they are victims of a dictatorship. In totalitarian societies, even the family estate is perverted.

In Stalin’s USSR a ’young pioneer’ was considered a here for denouncing the counterrevolutionary attitude of his parents. There was a stage in Cuba where a convinced Fidelista could not befriend a ’worm’, or have anything to do with a relative who had left the country or receive money from abroad.

I understand journalists like Omar Montenegro, of Radio Martí, who in a radio debate on the subject, said that measures such as these can at least serve to raise awareness of people who have turned faking it into a lifestyle. But beyond whether regulation could be effective in the moral order, in practice it would be a chaos for any federal agency of the United States.

And, as much frustration as those of us who aspire to a democratic Cuba may have, we can not be like them. It has rained a lot since then. The ideals of those who defend Fidel Castro’s revolution have been prostituted. Today, relatives of senior military and government officials have left for the United States. And the elite of the olive green bourgeoisie that lives on the island likes to play golf, drink Jack Daniel’s and wear name-brand clothes.

If Donald Trump applies the control of remittances to people working in GAESA or other military enterprises, it would affect more than one million workers engaged in these capitalist business of the regime, people who are as much victims of the dictatorship as the rest of the citizenship.

The colonels and generals who changed their hot uniforms for white guayaberas and the ministers and high officials, do not need to receive remittances. Without financial controls or public audits, they manage the state coffers at will. One day we will know how much they have stolen in the almost sixty years they have been governing.

 

Trump Provides the Perfect Stage for the Castro Regime / Iván García

Caricature of the Cuban News Agency taken from Cubahora

Ivan Garcia, 21 June 2017 — One morning, eighth grade students at a high school in La Vibora, a neighborhood in southern Havana, are waiting to take a Spanish test. After drinking a glass of water, the principal clears her throat and lashes out with the traditional anti-imperialist diatribe, denouncing the interference of “Mr. Trump and his terrorist acolytes in Miami’s Cuban mafia.”

Taken by surprise by Barack Obama’s novel approach of extending a hand to the Cuban people and reminding a stunned military gerontocracy of the virtues of democracy and respect for political differences, the regime has found a familiar dance partner in Donald Trump.

There have been numerous public events in state institutions, dozens of newspaper articles written and a timely diplomatic response in any number of platforms and international forums against Trump’s new policy towards Cuba. continue reading

It is not always true that with age comes wisdom. After almost 60 years of dealing with the Castro brothers and their dictatorship, America’s executive branch — for reasons ranging from electoral politics to, with some exceptions, a profound ignorance of Cuban society — has opted for a failed policy.

One of the Cuban exile community’s few successes was achieved by Jorge Más Canosa and his lobbying group, the Cuban American Foundation, which understood that a fundamental feature of American democracy is the need for political connections. It was one of the key reasons for the prominent role it played in shaping White House strategy for dealing with Cuba.

In the 1980s U.S. policy towards Cuba originated in Miami. By then, armed uprisings the island’s mountainous regions as well as attempts on Fidel Castro’s life had already failed.

With the powerful Israeli lobby as a model, Más Canosa launched a battle that combined diplomacy with knowledge of Washington’s political landscape to halt the Castro regime’s actions on the world stage.

And he had some successes: condemnations by human rights groups, codification of the embargo and special immigration status for Cuban exiles. And in the political arena, there is no group of immigrants to the United States with more congressmen, mayors and government officials, whether state or federal, than those from Cuba, despite the fact that they are only two and a half million of them in the country.

Most Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits agree on one thing: sooner or later we all hope to have a sovereign, democratic and fully functional country. Ideas on how to get there vary.

Some favor dialogue with the regime and a lifting of the embargo as the best option. Others prefer isolating the dictatorship, continuing the economic embargo and imposing international sanctions to force it to change or lose power. Though it was effective in ending apartheid in South Africa, in the case of Cuba the second option has not worked.

The U.S. embargo of Cuba has failed. Fifty-eight years of dictatorship by the Castros is the best evidence of this.

The United States should not feel conflicted about upholding its commitment to democracy and human rights. But using isolation as the means to achieve this goal has only provided the Castro brothers with a pretext to cast themselves as victims.

Among the few things on the island that do work are the secret police, repression and skillful diplomacy. But don’t expect production quotas to be met, more housing to be built or a government capable of creating a rational or sustainable economy.

Dissidents — those in charge of advancing democratic change in Cuba — are more lost than a drunk man on Saturn. Due to an almost scientific level of repression, their excessive self-importance and the lack of unity among different dissident groups, the opposition has not managed to build bridges to the average Cuban despite sharing many of the same beliefs.

There have been three different generations of regime opponents. Some go into exile; some explore new opportunities for creating legal platforms to express themselves among the few controlled options the armor-plated regime allows; others adjust to the way things are. The effect is to turn being a dissident into a private business.

That is the current state of the Cuban opposition, which remains divided, with no base of supporters ready to rally behind them and with some betting on a miraculous rescue by the United States.

If the regime and the dissident community are similar in any way, it is that they blame their failures on the United States or on one of its policies such as the Obama doctrine.

The military autocrats are not going to change. They will continue to repress, verbally attacking and jailing dissidents. Donald Trump, who has not come up with a strategy of his own, simply pours a little more gasoline on the fire to benefit Raúl Castro’s propaganda efforts.

In coming days there will be declarations by Cuban workers, farmers, architects and studentes “condemning the Yankee injustice.” The state’s barrage of propaganda will become even more fierce.

It is incredible that Trump’s boistrous appearance in Miami, with his pathetic gestures and expressions, arouses more interest than the decaffeinated session of the National Assembly of People’s Power, where the country’s problems are supposedly being discussed.

Meanwhile, as Trump pouts and makes promises he will not fulfill, reality prevails. In spite of all the verbal fuss, only two elements of the Obama doctrine have been reversed: trips by Americans to Cuba and doing business with military companies. Everything else remains in place.

And who benefits? Since most of the agreements remain in place, the answer is Castro’s propaganda apparatus and American interests. Neither Trump nor any other U.S. president is better able to defend our rights than we ourselves are.

The Stars and Stripes is not our flag. And the USA is not our country.

Once and for all, the compatriots living abroad and those on the island have to make clear that the solution to the problems of Cuba is an issue for all Cubans. And no one else.