May Rains Brought More “Drama” to Cubans / Ivan Garcia

Source: Juventud Rebelde

Ivan Garcia, 4 June 2018 — When it started raining on May 2, Eliseo and his wife had already covered the leaks in the roof of tiles with silicone, wooden planks and pieces of plastic. On the deck, outside, they sprayed waterproof paint and reinforced the iron beams on the roof that run through the house, so they do not collapse.

Eliseo and his wife reside in a low-lying area of Old Havana, bordering a railway line, very close to the old Cuatro Caminos Market, and which usually floods any time there is a downpour of moderate intensity.

“Since I have had the use of reason, the authorities have been saying they are going to drain the area and build comfortable buildings. It is a tale. In addition to flooding immediately with any storm, 80 percent of the houses are in poor condition. continue reading

Every year, when the hurricane season arrives (from June 1 to November 30) or it rains hard, the roof of one or several houses always collapses or the walls collapse. The only thing the government does is evacuate you to a safe place. Then, when calm returns, they sell you a couple of mattresses and an electric rice cooker. People have to pay for the repairs of the houses themselves. Those who can’t, because they are subsidized by the State, have been waiting for a lot of years for a new house to be offered to them or for building materials,” says Eliseo, as he checks the walls,

Around here, families establish their own security protocols before a storm hits. “When the rains get worse, my two children go to sleep in the safest part of the house. This time the effects were minor. The roof lasted, only five or six tiles were broken,” says Eliseo, who works as a port stevedore.

Almost four weeks of constant rain in the capital caused more than 200 partial or complete building collapses in the municipalities of Habana Vieja, Plaza and Centro Habana.

“When the sun came out it was worse. In the last seven days there have been around 120 collapsed roofs or walls. Luckily, there was no need to mourn the wounded or the dead. And luckily the rains in Havana were not as intense as in other provinces such as Villa Clara, Cienfuegos and Sancti Spiritus,” says a municipal housing official.

Martí Noticias asked the official if, among the strategies of the new government there is a plan to improve the drainage in the low zones and to build houses for the thousands of Havanans living in precarious conditions and extreme poverty.

“There is talk of increasing the construction of houses. According to the government, in a decade this problem could be solved, at least in Havana. But we will have to see. Between the Yankees’ blockade and that of the Cubans themselves, along with the corruption and bureaucracy, I doubt that the deficit of a million houses can be built,” the official believes.

The problem of housing is a long-standing issue in Cuba. Fidel Castro planned different strategies. From creating brigades of builders with people who had never used a mason’s trowel to promising to build 100,000 homes per year.

The aesthetics and poor quality of most of these constructions meant that even many families residing in houses built three decades ago now need a new dwelling. This is the case for Esther, a primary school teacher, who lives in a ramshackle building built in the late 1980s in a neighborhood in Vedado.

“It was about ten o’clock at night when a piece of the ceiling fell in. Fortunately, my daughter was watching television. It’s not the only problem. Years ago, the neighbors of the building have clogs, and roof and window leaks. Some of the stair steps have collapsed and to climb to the fifth floor, where I live, you have to be an acrobat. And that’s not the fault of the blockade or bad weather,” says Esther.

On May 27, persistent rains also caused he collapse of a part of a building located at the corner of Muralla and Aguiar streets, in Old Havana. “That building had been declared uninhabitable years ago. After 6:00 in the evening, part of the roof collapsed, causing damage to other rooms. The racket was horrible, but no one was injured or killed,” says Barbara, a neighbor of the property.

The intense rains of the subtropical storm Alberto caused 7 deaths and left two missing in Cuba (see note at the end). The greatest damage occurred in the central provinces, especially in Cienfuegos, Villa Clara and Sancti Spiritus.

Thousands of hectares of rice, tobacco, fruit trees and crops were spoiled. “Enjoy bananas and pineapple now, because with the losses in Ciego de Ávila, they will be missing from the market for a while,” predicts Omar, a truck driver who transports agricultural products from the center of the island to the capital.

In the town of Ovas, Pinar del Río, 170 kilometers west of Havana, the rains were also very intense. Ovid, owner of a small farm, believes that “a lot of the responsibility for the loss of the crops belongs to the farmers. It was known that the rainy season was coming and the crops needed to be harvested ahead of time, and then the fields plowed.

But the lands that belong to the state belong to no one and no one cares that the crops are spoiled. Four drops of water fall and people stop working. If they owned the land, that wouldn’t happen.”

At present, Cubans are concerned about the prices of agricultural products will continue to rise in the markets because of Albert. “If there is a drought it is bad, if it rains a lot, it’s bad too. Let’s see how much the prices go up, any bad weather causes things to get even more expensive,” complains Irma, a housewife.

Cuba, a nation that imports everything from toothbrushes to sewing threads, is always exposed to hurricanes, external political situations or the rise or fall of oil prices in the international market. This time it was defeated by the intense rains of a tropical storm.

Note: On June 1, Civil Defense issued the names and locations of the seven deceased persons and the two who remained missing.

Alejandro Enrique Cumbrera Pérez, a native of Bayamo, Granma, disappeared in the Arimao River, Manicaragua, Villa Clara, and Ricardo Perdomo González, disappeared in Chambas, Ciego de Ávila. 

The deceased, all of whom died from drowning, are: Daikel Palacios Martínez, 29, from Herradura, Consolación del Sur, Pinar del Río; Eduardo Ramos González, 35, from Sandino, Pinar del Río; Noel Aranda Guerra, 58, from the Batey Crane Nueva, Primero de Enero, Ciego de Ávila; Jailen Venegas Meneses, 26, from Batey Limones Palmeros, Majagua, Ciego de Ávila; Quintiliano Meregildo Simo Ortega, 77, from Manuel Piti Fajardo, Trinidad, Sancti Spiritu; Rosbel López Ríos, 27, from Cayos Las Vacas, Remedios, Villa Clara; and Ramón Cabrera García, 56, in the Cruceros de los Álvarez reservoir, Colón, Matanzas.

Cubana de Aviacian in the Crosshairs / Ivan Garcia

Cubana de Aviación airplane at the Havana airport. Taken from Tico Times.

Iván García, 1 June 2018 — Although the chances of an accident are one in a thousand, Rigoberto González and his wife refused to travel by plane in the state-owned company Cubana de Aviación to Santiago de Cuba, 957 kilometers east of Havana, and opted to travel on an interprovincial highway to the eastern city.

“With the thunder storm, I prefer to travel on a ground ball, by land, rather than a flyball. The impression on the street is that the old planes of Cubana de Aviación are flying coffins. The flight is relatively cheap, around 200 Cuban pesos — the equivalent of 9 dollars — and the trip lasts one hour. But as a result of the last plane crash, through social networks and the foreign press, I learned that the problem goes beyond outdated airplanes and a shortage of spare parts. Besides bad work, it is said that there is corruption and negligence,” Rigoberto says. continue reading

The fatal accident, which occurred on May 18 in Havana, coincided with the rise of the Internet on the island. If previously the regime of Fidel Castro, thanks to the tight control of the entire state press, could manipulate local public opinion at will, now Facebook, Twitter, social networks, blogs, alternative sites and international media, have opened a considerable gap in the wall of disinformation designed by the olive green autocracy, which no longer holds water.

Newspapers from Florida such as Diario Las Américas and El Nuevo Herald, and websites like Martí Noticias, have published about the irregularities of the turbulent company Global Air. Information published in the Mexican press, which has included reports of pilots and inspectors of Cubana de Aviación warning not to lease Global Air. These reviews have had an impact on the Island.

Authorities of civil aviation in Guyana, Honduras and Chile, had already banned the Boeing 727-200 from flying in their territory in Havana. The official Cuban press has not published a line on this.

Germán, a barber, believes that “it is incongruous, that with all the news on the Internet about that company, that the Cuban press does not reflect it. I suspect that there is some complicity between the officials of Cubana de Aviación and Global Air. If they had difficulties once in 2010 in Santa Clara, and has had a series of problems in other countries, it is inexplicable that our authorities have hired them again. ”

Sara, a bank employee, points out that “the Institute of Civil Aeronautics has been having problems for some time, including cases of corruption, such as that of its president, General Rogelio Acevedo, dismissed in 2010 and rumored to have stolen millions of dollars. To this is added the bad service, delays in the flight schedules and an old-fashioned aerial fleet with no replacement parts. It amazes me that they have not shut down. This tragic accident could have been avoided if its leaders had been more responsible.”

Four Cubana de Aviación accidents happened on the island in the last 16 years (March 2002, October 2010, November 2010 and May 2018) with a total of 203 deaths, in a company that operates a handful of international and domestic flights that merits a serious and deep investigation.

“In Cuba, corruption is tolerated. Six or seven years ago, several operators of the Sol y Son tourism company, with the complicity of Civil Aviation officials, implemented an under the table import business from Mexico. The poor maintenance of the airplanes and the contracting with airlines that offer bribes to corrupt Cuban officials, is added to terrible service at the airports. They break a flat screen TV and don’t compensate travelers for stealing their suitcases. Recently, due to delays in a flight, almost a hundred Canadian tourists were stranded in Cayo Coco,” says a former airport worker.

According to an official of the Civil Aeronautics of Cuba, “the state press has not published the information and rumors circulating about Global Air and its apparent deficiencies, pending the conclusion of the investigation of international experts. The Cuban authorities are also conducting a thorough examination. You have to be patient and not say things that can not be proven.”

A segment of ordinary Cubans consider that the new hand-picked president Miguel Diaz-Canel should pound his fist on the table and, if it exists, reveal the alleged corrupt framework and the deficiencies of the sector.

“He has to prove that he is not a simple puppet and clean up the shit in a decisive way. If he does, it would increase its popularity,” says Pablo, a hospital custodian.

“Nothing is going to change as long as things do not change in Cuba. Cubana de Aviación is the reflection of the system we have, which does not work. Neither Díaz-Canel nor Mandrake the Magician can reverse that reality, as long as the system does not change,” emphasizes Damián, a taxi driver, who suggests “forming a joint venture airline with Canada or any developed nation in Europe. And to close Cubana de Aviación, an unsafe company, that does not meet with its schedules and provides bad service.”

There are more than a few in Cuba who think the same as the Havana taxi driver.

"If the Price of Food Keeps Going Up in Cuba…" / Ivan Garcia

Agromercado at 19th and B, Vedado, Havana. Taken from Havana Times

Ivan Garcia, 7 June 2018 — Despite the cloudy sky, the rains and the fact that the sun has been hidden for two weeks, the flow of people into the private farm market at 19th and B in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood does not diminish.

The market, painted green and yellow, with neat stalls and corny drawings of fruit, vegetables and pork legs on the walls, is probably one of the few places in Havana where you can buy oranges and grapefruit, citrus fruits that, at least in the capital, appear to be heading to extinction.

Or delicacies like strawberries, soursops, canistels, mangoes, pineapples, fruits and vegetables out of season and strings of gigantic onions. Also, shavings of guayos and shelled or ground peanuts. continue reading

The bananas do not have black spots and the guavas are not bruised or semi-rotten. The pork loin is fresh, as are the rams’ legs and the rabbit. Luisa, a chubby brunette with feet swollen by diabetes, who lives in a tenement on Calle 17, calls the market “the museum.”

Mi’jo, you come here to look, not to buy. This market is for millionaires. Five years ago, in Havana, a pound of unroasted peanuts cost 7 to 8 pesos. Now it costs 17 or 20 pesos and is almost never available. Here at 19th and B they always have them, at 18 pesos. I sell roasted peanuts on the street and it is not a business to buy peanuts at that price to sell them by the paper cone for a peso. That’s why you see very few people selling peanuts now. It occurred to me to make plastic bags and sell them for 5 Cuban pesos or 25 cents in chavitos (0.25 cuc). Foreigners who rent in this area pay me 0.50 cents and that’s how I get by.”

But it is not only peanuts that have doubled its price in the last five years.

“It’s all foods,” says Alberto, a retired engineer. And he offers details: “Except for sweet potatoes and yucca, to which we should build a monument, the prices of the rest of the agricultural and meat products have skyrocketed, and even at those very expensive prices you can’t find them. In 2013, a pound of pork loin was 35 pesos and now it costs 50. If you want to eat tomatoes out of season you must pay 20 pesos a pound. Two pounds of clean shrimp costs 10 CUC. And the pound of fish like hogfish, needlefish or emperorfish isn’t less than 2.50 CUC. I have my two children in the United States and each one sends me $200 per month. And all the money goes into food, maintaining the house and paying for electricity, because I have two air conditioners and the bill is around one thousand (Cuban) pesos a month.”

The official press, benevolent to the point of indolence, in its news and newspapers usually smothers Cubans with crop statistics and pork production records.

According to the regime’s media, in 2017 more than 190 thousand tons of pork were produced and by 2018, 250 thousand tons are forecast.

Eugenia, who cleans the floor in a polyclinic and earns a monthly salary equivalent to $19, packs pork liver for her children’s lunch because it is cheaper than meat, and asks: “Where is the trick? The list doesn’t line up with the cost. On television they say that the production of almost everything increases, but the truth is that prices do not stop rising. If the prices of food continue to rise, we will have to snack on the money, because in this country they sell to everybody very dearly: private individuals, state food markets and foreign currency stores. ”

Putting four plates of food on the table in Cuba is a titanic task.

Deborah, a dietitian, explains that “the quality of food leaves much to be desired. We eat too much flour and foods that provide very little nutrients. People have to eat what they have, not what they want. Dieting is very difficult, due to the high prices and because in the markets they do not sell specific foods for those who need or want to diet. That statistic that 40% of the population is overweight or obese is deceptive. Even families with fat wallets do not eat well. There are leaders who are fat because they eat a lot, not because they eat healthily. ”

Carlos, a sociologist, points out that “80% of the household budget is spent on food. Those who earn little buy the cheapest and most harmful, such as carbohydrates and fats. Those who earn more, eat more, but not always with quality. Above fruits and vegetables, meat is prioritized, especially pork, the most abundant. Fish is barely eaten. The fundamental proteins eaten by Cubans come from pork, eggs and chicken.”

Relative to the prices of ten years ago, all food has gone up between 15 and 40 percent.

“This means, says Sergio, an economist, that if we add the price increases in other products, and look at the purchasing capacity of 100 dollars in the year 2000, in 2018 it is equivalent to 55 or 60 dollars. Families that receive remittances need more money to buy the same amount of food they bought 18 years ago. That is one of the reasons, among others, why the sending of dollars from the United States increases. And to this we add that they are sending their relatives money not only to feed themselves, but also to pay for their cell phone and internet, and sending them medicines that are scarce in the Island.”

Olga, a high school math teacher, hopes that newly appointed president Miguel Diaz-Canel “does something to solve the food issue. I have seen that he is talking to people in neighborhoods and workplaces. It is good that he has gotten out of the office and is watching and listening, but so far he has not said what he is going to do to make it so Cubans live better.”

And in Cuba, people usually spend several hours scouring markets and stores in search of food. Sometimes they have the money but there isn’t any of what they are looking for. Or there is, but they do not have money or they do not have enough.

Cubans want prosperity to be something more than a slogan of the regime.

Accounts of the Aerial Disaster in Havana / Ivan Garcia

Curious onlookers near the site of the accident (Reuters, from Diario de Cuba).

Iván García,22 May 2018 — Forty-eight hours after the tragic plane crash, the area where the Boeing 727-200 went down — the airliner had been leased by Cubana de Aviación from the Mexican company Global Air — is still cordoned off with yellow ribbon as dozens of crime scene specialists and civil aeronautics experts are examining the area.

Some of the investigators wear khaki pants or fatigues and white labcoats, a sign that they are from the military. Others are dressed in civilian clothes. Access routes to the railroad tracks and field where the disaster happened are guarded by two patrol cars. continue reading

Three farm houses commandeered by investigators provide storage for possible evidence and serve as a makeshift command center. It is not difficult to find people who want to tell their version of the story.

Luis Antonio, a native of Las Tunas who has lived for five years in the village of Mulgoba, points out that he has already done three interviews: “One for Univisión, one for a Chinese news agency and one for [Spanish news agency] EFE.”

“I work at a nursery relatively close to the scene of the accident,” he says. “It was noon, so people were going to lunch. I grabbed my lunch box, which had onion omelette, white rice, pea soup and boiled sweet potato. I sat down under a tree to eat. All of a sudden I heard a loud noise. When I stopped and looked up at the sky” — he points to a field to his left — “I saw the plane passing over the trees. It was giving off black smoke and rocking from side to side like a broken toy. I lost sight of it right before it crashed. It hit the ground about two hundred meters from where I was eating. I felt a blast of heat and heard a huge roar. I started running. I thought that thing was going to explode.”

The first ones to arrive at the site were locals who live along the road that connects Boyero Avenue with the town of Calabazar as well as workers, technical school and pre-university students on their way to class, and passers-by waiting at a bus stop a stone’s throw from the domestic terminal of José Martí International Airport.

“It was a carnival atmosphere, though there was a group of people who did take it seriously and acted responsibly. Others were holding mobile phones and filming everything. It was like they were going to a party. I stayed at the bus stop because I knew from the police show on television that the scene of accident must be preserved,” says Marta, a housewife who lives near the airport and was waiting for the P12 bus to Central Havana.

On the day of the crash dozens of homemade cell phone videos were already circulating on social media and among Havana residents. Catering to a morbid curiousity befitting a serial killer, videos with raw scenes of dismembered or burned bodies were being shared on IMO and Bluetooth devices.

A young woman seated at an outdoor café on Boyeros Avenue shows a video in which a man tries to steal a wallet from a victim who was on the flight to Holguín. “He was taking advantage of the chaos. The guy was trying to steal suitcases and money. A policeman who had just arrived to help the accident victims was the one who arrested the thief,” she says while explaining the video.

The first images broadcast on national television, whose minute-by-minute coverage was unusually extensive, and others like them circulating on social media show dozens of people contaminating the crash site.

Pedro, a custodian at an auto repair shop relatively close to the crash site, observes, “The police response was slow. The people who were trying to help the ones still alive weren’t knowledgeable about first aid so they didn’t handle the wounded properly. The ones who arrived the fastest were the firefighters, who have their own base at the airport. Then two ambulances came but I don’t think the first responders were prepared for this type of accident. If they had taken the injured to Calixto García instead of National Hospital, which isn’t fully equipped, perhaps another life could have been saved.”

What is powerfully striking in the case of traffic accidents, building collapses and destruction caused by hurricanes is that there are citizens whose first response is to record the events with their cell phones rather than help the victims.

Leidis, a primary school teacher, recalls, “Two or three years ago, a young woman was hit by a train near the Café Colón in Arroyo Naranjo. Instead of helping her, many of the people gathered around her were filming. Recently, a man had a heart attack in the street and a huge crowd formed around him, not to help but to shoot photos and make videos.”

The plane crash on Friday, May 18 in Havana poses new questions about the dreadful service provided by Cubana de Aviación, which is considered one of the worst airlines in the world.

Oscar, a former pilot for Cubana de Aviación, believes, “The company should call it quits and shut down. For years Cubana has not had the necessary stockpile of spare parts. If people knew how often pilots and maintenance crew have to improvise, they would not get on those flights.”

“It’s not just a matter of modernizing the fleet. It’s about having an adequate logistical base,” he says. “Some accidents, like the one in Sancti Spiritus eight years ago and the one this time, have happened with rented planes. There is something suspicious about these rentals that I hope this investigation will shine a light on. No one knows why or how officials at Civil Aeronautics contracts with airlines that almost no one has heard of. Rumors are that money is being paid under the table.

The fact is these are companies with very limited resources and outdated airplanes. We found out through an interview with a pilot who worked for this Mexican airline that they were flying with punctured tires and defective radar. One of our pilots reported on social media that seven years ago this same company had problems on a flight to Santa Clara. He filed his report but it was as though nothing had happened.”

Cubana de Aviación has been under scrutiny for some time. One or two days before the accident involving the Boeing 737-200, First Vice-President Salvador Valdés Mesa held a working meeting with officials of the Institute of Civil Aeronautics.

Delays are routine on domestic flights. Rolando Rodríguez Lobaina, a dissident activist and director of the independent media company Palenque Visión, recalls that on one occasion “the flight to Holguín was delayed by more than fourteen hours.”

Dania, who often travels by plane to the eastern provinces, notes, “When you fly on Cubana, you have to say a prayer before you take off. Those planes are scary. In addition to delays and abuse from employees, they don’t clean the planes. A few months ago, I was returning from Guántanamo on an AN-158 and had a seat near the wing. I could see through the window that some screws had come loose. I told the purser and he tried to reassure me by telling me, jokingly, not to worry, that fortunately they had extras in the plane. I hope this accident causes some heads to roll.”

The incident occured a month after Miguel Díaz-Canel became president. We will have to wait and see if the new president, in addition to focusing on the filth in Havana, focuses his attention on conditions at this erratic state-owned company, which is also in need of a thorough cleaning. Or he could just cover up Cubana de Aviación’s garbage with a blanket of silence, as has happened so far.

How Cubans Get the News / Ivan Garcia

Source: Diarios Las Américas

Iván García, 28 May 2018 — In the faded kiosk, hanging on a piece of string, is the Granma newspaper from two days ago, a  Juventud Rebelde (Rebellious Youth) also outdated, and a Bohemian magazine for the month of April.

A thin lady with heavy-frame glasses, unties a bundle of the Communist Party organ and while counting newspapers, she runs her dry fingers across her lips. Separating a handful of copies, she puts them under a broken shelf. With an impossible slowness, she starts selling the Granma newspaper to a dozen old pensioners, who earn a few pesos by reselling newspapers in the streets of Havana.

“Every day I buy 60 or 70 newspapers at twenty cents. Each day I sell 40 to 50 Granmas at one Cuban peso. Those that I have left, I also sell them. It does not matter if they are old, because people use them to wrap the garbage, for toilet paper, or to clean their windows,”  “says Rufino, 75, a former railway employee who receives a pension equivalent to $10 a month and tries to make it to the end of the month by selling newspapers and handmade candies. continue reading

Every day, he walks an average of seven to eight kilometers selling Granma. Rufio scans the paper and then calls out a headline. “When a fat skewer (someone important) dies I sell a lot. Also when a report about corruption or the government dictates new measures. In general, those who buy the press most in Havana are people from 30 to 40 years old. Younger people pass on the newspaper. ”

When you ask Marlen, an engineer of 48, engineer, which media he prefer, he smiles before answering. “The ones I usually read the most are the three national ones (Granma, Juventud Rebelde and Trabajadores), which more or less say the same thing and are quite boring, because the way of writing is not very pleasant. The Cuban press is too politicized, lacks research papers, critical articles and chronicles about the real life of Cubans. The same happens with the television news. The best program is Carta sobre la mesa, the Caribbean Channel and some things on the Havana Channel. In short: our press goes from bad to worse.”

When he is able, Marlen is informed through the Univision news or Channel 51, through the illegal cable antenna. Or on Facebook, where they sometimes disseminate materials appearing in openly anti-Castro media such as Cubanet, Diario de Cuba and Martí Noticias, among others.

Daniel, 34, with a degree in social communication, believes that “the range of information available to Cubans is permeated by the lack of rigor of political analysis, bias and lack of objectivity. It does not show all the information, only a part,” he points out and mentions two cases:

“The editorial line is crazy. During the Summit of the Americas, you read that the Cuban delegates left or protested the attendance of ’mercenaries’, but they did not put the news in context, they did not clarify what it was about. Who were the ’mercenaries’ and what did they expose? A few days ago, Granma published that they will not allow parallel Art Biennials. In passing, they mentioned the 00 Biennial, but without explaining what the Biennial was about and why it would be prohibited. It is a string of hollow words, lacking an analysis that convinces. And from time to time they sneak in fake news. ”

If information is power, then Sheila, 17, a junior in high school, has none. Sitting at the entrance of the old Secondary Education Institute of La Víbora, with a bit of pride she says “I don’t waste my time reading the Cuban newspapers. Nor books that sell in bookstores. If anything, I read a novel by Paulo Coelho brought from outside.”

She learns what is happening in Cuba and the world with evident delay. “Sometimes I know something through social networks or when my dad who lives in Miami calls. I do not think I miss anything important. The Brazilian and Colombian telenovelas, salsa music, reggaeton and fashion magazines are mine. The rest I don’t care about.”

No one believes the words of the late Fidel Castro, who claimed that the Cuban people were the most educated and with the highest political level in the world, which continues to be repeated by official propaganda.

“That statement is not true. Government officials and State Security officials are more indoctrinated than informed. The information that is offered in Cuba is extremely slanted. By not selling the foreign press, and with the high price of the Internet and the censorship of numerous digital pages critical of the regime, citizens have a very limited ability to evaluate the information they read or listen to,” underlines Carlos, 62, a sociologist.

Lídice, 37 and with a degree in history, believes “that by not being able to access a greater number and variety of sources of information and different points of view, the quality of the debate and analysis is impoverished. In the national and provincial media you do not find a single opinion piece that openly criticizes the president or the measures he takes. However, criticism of all kinds proliferates on the street. The independent or alternative press makes criticisms, but has little readership within the country. The majority of Cuban journalists who write on their own on foreign sites are not known. Very few, for example, found out that Julio Batista won the King of Spain Journalism Award. Some unofficial reports reach the population thanks to social networks, not because you can access these websites.”

This notorious information deficit means that in Cuba the right to freedom of information, opinion and expression contemplated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a business. From the rent of the illegal antenna to the purchase of magazines and newspapers that come in on planes and that airport workers clandestinely sell in foreign currency.

Emma, 51, a teacher who periodically visits the United States for family matters, recalls “that the bulletins and summaries compiled by the former United States Interests Section, today the Embassy, with news about Cuba that came from the foreign press and independent journalists, and that people obtained free when they went there for an immigration process, circulated as samizdat throughout the country. Now, with the reduction in the diplomatic staff, not only the consular officials disappeared, but also those bulletins.”

A director of radio programs believes that “the best tool to hear the news from Cuba that the official press does not broadcast, is the radio, as long as you have a short-wave device. Television is the perfect medium, which attracts more users, but is blocked by the State, except in international hotels. With the illegal antenna and the ’packet’, better information could be obtained. But those who design these programs, in order to avoid problems with the police, barely include news of a political nature. Newspapers such as The New York Times in Spanish or El País in Spain, can be read in any park with Wi-Fi, which costs a convertible peso the time of connection and Cubans prioritize communications with their relatives abroad. If you want to be well informed in Cuba, you just have to dedicate time. Or money, in the case of the internet.”

According to a brief survey of a dozen people of both sexes between the ages of 18 and 78, the online sites that citizens access most, through proxies or Facebook, are Diario de Cuba, El Nuevo Herald, Diario Las Américas, Martí Noticias, Carta desde Cuba, 14ymedio, El Estornudo and OnCuba Magazine.

Cubans often hear about the news from their relatives living abraod. “I heard about Fidel’s death from my brother who called me from Miami, because I can barely see the television here,” confesses Manuel, 45, a taxi driver.

The control of the olive green autocracy over information and state media is less severe than two decades ago. Currently, the mobile phone has become a valuable communication tool in Cuba. And Granma newspaper has been left to wrap the garbage. Or as a substitute for toilet paper.

Havanans Opine: "We Have a Vanilla-Chocolate-Chip Government" / Iván García

Rizado y chocolate is a Cuban version of stracciatella ice cream, created in the early 1960s by Enrico Panattoni, in his La Marianna candy store, Bergamo, Italy. Made with cream and chocolate chips, in other countries it is known as vanilla-chocolate-chip ice cream. Taken from www.bhmpics.com

Iván García, 26 April 2018 — The building at the central intersection of 23rd and 12th streets in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood, where 57 years ago, without prior popular consultation, Fidel Castro suddenly declared the Communist character of Cuba, was renovated to serve as backdrop to the military celebration for to honor that day, 16 April 1961.

Nearby, on 23rd and 10th, where the old Ten Cent Store is now a market that sells food and preserves in the devalued national currency, about twenty people are waiting for the store to open. On the sidewalk, a couple of dirty puny dogs fight over pieces of a cheese pizza and in the smelly Loipa coffee shop, a salesclerk reads the boring Granma newspaper.

The sun heats up the asphalt and in the Charles Chaplin movie theater, headquarters of the ICAIC (Cuban Film Institute), located opposite the former Ten Cent Store, there is a poster announcing a 3D version of Journey to the Center of the Earth. Around the corner, two beggars rummage in trash cans next to the home of Magaly, a housewife, who is preparing ground turkey croquettes for her grandchildren’s lunch. continue reading

Coming from Magaly’s kitchen we can hear the guttural voice of Esteban Lazo who was recently ratified as president of Cuba’s monopoly parliament, inviting the newly elected members of the Council of State to take the stand. “And now I give the floor to the president of the Council of State and Ministers, Miguel Mario Díaz-Canel Bermúdez,” Lazo announces in a flat voice.

Magaly wipes her hands on her apron and listens to Diaz-Canel. “His first speech was not anything special. People expected him to talk about economic issues. It was rumored that he was going to announce the end of the dual currency system. But nothing. With that suit and tie, I found him uptight, as if the position is too big for him. I believe that Díaz-Canel has the last chance to change things in Cuba for the better. Otherwise, this is going to blow up like a bomb.”

Eusebio, owner of a small umbrella repair business, believes that “because there are 52% women deputies and 47% blacks and mestizos, the future looks better. I see that there are many young people, but politically the deputies are not trained. Politics is a profession, it’s not amateurish. Most of those people who supposedly represent us, are only there to raise their hands unanimously. Now we have a ‘vanilla-chocolate-chip’ (whites and blacks) government, ready to carry out orders. I do not know if it’s going to work.”

His opinion animates the debate among those in line at the market on 23rd and 10th. “I am not a racist. In Cuba, anyone who doesn’t have a little Congo blood has a little Carabali. But I don’t like the idea of people unfamiliar with politics making decisions just because they are women or blacks. Esteban Lazo may have spent many years in government, but what has he done? And Salvador Valdes, the new first vice president, is 72-years-old and did not even make his mark when he was secretary general of the Cuban Workers Center (CTC) for seven years (2006-2013). That position they gave to Salvador Valdés should have gone to Lazaro Expósito, the first secretary of Santiago de Cuba, and I don’t know why he’s not on the Council of State,” says a woman who claims to be from eastern Cuba and a retired teacher.

Igor, a high school student, is filled with pessimism. “None of them will fix this. The problem of Cuba is the factory. You have to change the system.”

At his side, a man nods and says: “What is coming is more of the same, or worse. Because this guy isn’t going to rule alone. Raúl, Ramiro and the rest of the old men who fought in the Sierra are not there as decorative figures. Those changes are to create a different image for the international gallery. Here in Cuba, nothing happens without the owners of the farm authorizing it.”

A corpulent man in a security guard’s uniform asks if “Salvador Valdés Mesa is the first niche [black] to hold a position of first vice president in Cuba” and regrets that they have not given the job to “Mercedes López Acea, a mulata who is the first secretary of the party in the capital, or Inés María Chapman, a black engineer who has done a good job in the Aqueduct in Havana. They had to put in one of the two, so there would be a woman in an important position.”

In response, Mario, 76, retired, clarifies: “First black vice president, we never had one. The only mestizo president in Cuba was Batista. In 1940 he held the position and did good, in ’52 he started doing bad.”

The debate loses steam when the market opens. On the other side of the city, in the slum neighborhood of Mantilla, I ask Pepe, a private seller of fruit and vegetables, who reluctantly replies that he is not interested in Diaz-Canel and “doesn’t give a shit” about him.

He is upset that 60 pounds of papaya went to waste. While he calculates on his Chinese-made calculator, he explains that he has lost more than 700 pesos. Calmer, he says: “I have not been thinking about politics for a while. All those people are shameless. They live like the rich and exploit the people for their interests. Díaz-Canel is in that position because his compadre Raúl gave it to him. Neither he nor his government will solve the difficulties in which we Cubans live.”

Gonzalo, a bank employee, thinks that “Díaz-Canel should be given the benefit of the doubt. We will have to wait a while to see how the man unfolds. He’s a pig in a poke. Maybe he’s the savior of Cuba.”

Diario las Américas spoke with twelve people, six men and six women, aged between 15 and 81 years. Two preferred not to comment and the rest, they said they have few expectations about the performance of the new government.

It remains to be seen if the new government has the guts and autonomy necessary to undertake the in-depth reforms that the country needs. It is likely that on Friday, April 20, after the celebration for his 58th birthday, in the privacy of his home, the new president of the Republic of Cuba will calmly review his life. (For his birthday, official media agreed to highlight his political career with photos published in the digital editions of Cubadebate, Granma, Vanguardia, the newspaper of Villa Clara, his native province, and Ahora, de Holguín, where they say that Díaz-Canel is an ordinary guy from Holguin).

Like any human being, Miguel Díaz-Canel must have many questions without answers. Goals. Longings. Dreams. In his hands he has to make history or kill the aspirations of a nation.

He has said that his government is going to listen to the people. We hope that he fulfills that promise.

Raul Castro’s Inconclusive Reforms / Ivan Garcia

Cartoon balloons: Díaz-Canel (left) asks Raúl Castro, “Can I promise them a glass of milk?” Castro responds, “Don’t even think about it.”

Iván García, 10 May 2018 — It seems a lot of time has passed since the night of July 31, 2006 when Fidel Castro’s former secretary, Carlos Valenciaga, announced on the eight o’clock news that the bearded former guerrilla leader was retiring due to illness.

Most Cubans remember what they were doing at that moment. Fifty-six-year-old Pedro Antonio, a worker at a steel plant on the outskirts of Havana was having dinner with his family when the news produced a solemn silence at the table. continue reading

“We thought ‘el Fifo’ was vanishing into thin air. Everyone was wondering how things would be under his brother Raúl, who had a reputation as a strongman. I remember that there was a hurricane that year and they sent the black berets* out into the streets. Anyone found carrying a carton of eggs without a good explanation was sent to prison. At my workplace people were stealing hand over fist. But once Raúl was in charge, he started taking measures to end the theft. Before that, if they caught you stealing, they just fired you. Now if they catch you, you’ll go to jail,” says Pedro Antonio.

He adds, “Raúl began a series of measures that won him popular approval, such as increasing self-employment, legalizing the sale of cars and homes, allowing Cubans to stay in hotels for foreign tourists, letting people have cell phones or to travel overseas without so much red tape. If you compare it to Fidel’s era, I think things are better.”

That was a decade ago. Sergio, a 69-year-old retiree, has only seen the internet in a movie broadcast on state television on Saturday nights. Seated under a leafy ceiba tree in Córdoba’s La Víbora Park, south of the capital, he can talk to his son, who lives in Miami, using the IMO video call app in one of the more than 300 wifi hotspots set up by the regime throughout the island.

Until July 4, 2013 the internet seemed like science fiction to a wide segment of the Cuban population. On that day a little more than 160 navigation centers were opened. Previously, wireless networks had been set up in hundreds of parks and public squares.

In the fall of 2017 the Nauta Hogar service became commercially available in certain areas for customers with landlines. ETECSA, Cuba’s only telecommunications company, plans to begin offering an internet service for data on mobile phones this year.

“Before 2013 I was spending between 6 and 10 CUC for an hour of internet service at Havana hotels in order to communicate with my son by email. It fell one CUC, from 4.50 CUC an hour, which is what it was costing in at the beginning of 2013. That was still expensive. It’s the equivalent of two days pay for an average worker. I have been able to visit my son and grandchildren in the United States four times. That’s the good part. The bad part is that, with the meager pensions they pay retirees — around ten dollars a month in my case — a lot of elderly people, some with serious illnesses and senile dementia, have to go out into the streets in search of four pesos in order to survive,” says Sergio.

Retirees have been the biggest losers from the Castro regime’s timid economic reforms. Their pensions are frozen in time. “My check goes to buying produce and rice, and paying for electricity,”  says 72-year-old Mercedes who, in spite of persistent arthritis, sells peanuts at bus stops.

The aging population is a big unsolved problem for the country’s leaders. Within seven years, 20.1% of the Cuban population will be over 60 years of age. There are not enough material or financial resources for social services to deal with what comes next.

Emilio, an economist, believes that the “accelerated aging of the population coupled with an alarming rise in emigration” — between 2013 and 2017 almost one and a half million Cubans emigrated, though that has been curbed by repeal of the so-called wet-foot-dry-foot law in the United States — “will lead to a significant labor shortage, in both skilled and unskilled occupations, by 2030 if not before. This is already being seen in manual labor jobs such those in construction and farming. The money needed for social services could be generated by abolishing the armed forces, as Costa Rica has done, considering that it consumes between eight and ten percent of GDP.”

Officially, Raúl Castro ruled the country for ten years, doing so initially on a provisional basis. During that time he approved a string of very popular measures that expanded self-employment and repealed absurd regulations that turned Cubans into third-class citizens in their own country. Later, however, he put the brakes on privately operated 3D movie theaters and clothing stores in favor of the government owned corporations run by the military.

In a speech in Camaguey, a province 350 miles east of Havana, he promised every Cuban a glass of milk. He also promised prosperity and sustainability, wholesale markets for the private sector, changes to the constitution, new laws governing press and film production, abolition of the two-currency system, a regulatory framework for small private companies and expansion of the cooperative business sector.

For a variety reasons, more political than economic, he failed to fulfill these promises. The biggest failure was his agricultural policy. He authorized the lease of public land to farmers, modified the regulations governing agricultural cooperatives, shut down operations that were inefficient and negotiated better payment terms for meat and dairy producers.

But it was not enough. Agricultural production remained tightly controlled and the sector showed no growth, not in the sugarcane nor in livestock.

A glass of milk, a glass of orange juice and a steak remain luxuries for most Cubans. Unless you are a child under the age of seven, if you want milk, you must it buy it in stores which only accept hard currency.

Only 21% of the major elements of Raúl Castro’s reforms, referred to as guidelines, were implemented. Excessive state control, fear of small family businesses accumulating large quantities of cash and opposing factions within the government led to a reversal of economic reforms.

In foreign affairs, Raúl Castro II succeeded in reestablishing economic relations with the United States after a year and a half of secret negotiations. And for the second time in Cuban history, a US president — Barack Obama — visited the island.

His historic speech in Havana’s Gran Teatro still resonates with a large segment of the Cuban population which is hoping for profound change. But Obama’s popularity and his strategy of favoring the private sector aroused discomfort in the regime, which abruptly halted the reforms.

The regime managed to have a large portion of its foreign debt forgiven and negotiated better financial terms with its Club of Paris creditors. Cuba’s military regime, along with the Catholic church, also played a key role in negotiating peace agreements in Colombia.

Raúl Castro never intended to initiate reforms of a political nature. Dissent will never be legitimized in a Castro-affiliated government like that of newly elected Miguel Díaz-Canel. Nor will political parties, a free press and independent civic organizations be allowed.

According to a Communist Party source, “different government agencies have conducted opinion polls, so the public’s frustrations and discontents are well-known. Almost all are related to the economy. That is where the new president will focus his efforts.”

In other words, we can expect economic reforms from the new regime. But democracy will have to wait.

*Translator’s note: Special police forces who are deployed during emergencies such as natural disasters or to apprehend dangerous criminal suspects.

"Today’s Cuba is Not the Cuba of the 80s," Say the Self-employed / Iván García

Source: Diario de las Americas

Iván García, 14 May 2018 — While walking among the metal stands with canvas roofs staffed by sellers using their hands as megaphones — “Get the best meat,” or “You’re going to miss out, we sell the best pork legs” — Dani, 35, owner of a cafe in the south of Havana, does not want to condition a future negotiation with the regime’s officials on talking about politics.

“Business is business, man. These people (the regime) support us but they don’t listen to us. If in addition to having strength on their side, you play the fool and demand democracy and human rights, they shut you down. With them, you have to play it gently, I believe that now with Diaz-Canel, no matter if he’s as communist as the other generation, he has to negotiate on better terms,” says Dani, while continuing to look over a piece of pork loin. continue reading

Later, in the kitchen of his house which functions as a cafe, he tries a fritter and tells the cook, “you have to take it out of the pan earlier, or else the meat gets too dried out.” Grabbing a glass with a little guava juice he takes a sip and tells his employee, “Luisita, this is five-star juice.”

Then, he opens the fridges, looks at what food he has left and mentally does his accounts. Later, with a Cristal beer in hand, he lowers the temperature on the air conditioner and continues his lecture:

“Today’s Cuba is not the Cuba of the 80s. Today there is internet and the state is so bad at administering services that it has no choice but to open new spaces. We (he says, referring to a group of entrepreneurs) have opened a well-organized Facebook site. ONAT (the state institution that regulates private work) sat down to talk with many self-employed people and taken note. That may not mean anything, but before they didn’t listen to you and did whatever they wanted.

“We have to wait for the new regulations to come out and for them to start handing out licenses again for the businesses they have now stopped issuing them for. They’re afraid and they’re going to try to take more control. Without shouting, or getting upset, we have to talk to the officials and explain things to them and show them that they are wrong.

“I think with a new president there will be greater receptivity. Not because he likes private business, but because now, the way the country is going, they have no room to maneuver. The self-employed must press Diaz-Canel to establish new rules of the game and the future Constitution must recognize small private companies.”

Osniel, the owner of a private restaurant and two cafes is not so optimistic, but agrees with Dani’s statement that “it is time to speak clearly with the government. Why can’t you have more than one license? What is the amount of money that the State considers rich? Why can’t we import food and supplies? There are many topics to discuss. I agree that the payment of taxes is sacred, but they taxes must be realistic, not used to prevent businesses from growing, because that encourages double accounting and theft.

“I also approve of entrepreneurs helping the community. When they have activities at the school near my restaurant, I send them snacks and sweets. I have helped families on my block to paint their houses, also to fix the street and the lighting of the block. You can move forward if there is goodwill, for the good of the country and the consumer,” says Osniel, and he adds:

“For me, I don’t think much of Diaz-Canel. He seems mediocre, but this is what we have. We have to demand of the government, once and for all, that they open a wholesale market, because as the prices rise in the retail market and the black market, where we buy the supplies for our businesses, the price of food automatically rises. If they say they can’t create it because they lack the resources, then authorize the (private) importing of food. If they do that, and the United States allows it, the amount of food bought in Miami would be huge. The state has to understand, and this isn’t a threat, that if they continue to apply the brakes, people are going to do things under the counter.”

Not all businesses are profitable like those dedicated to food service, transportation, hairdressing and lodging. According to Eduardo, an economist, “between 10 and 15% of the half million private workers have accumulated enough money to meet their material needs and have even saved to invest and improve their businesses. It is the dynamics of any particular company: grow, expand and bet on excellence.

“If the government tries to stop them, they depress a sector with a labor force that makes five or six times more than the state salary. The most practical thing is to adapt the interests of the State to the wishes of the population and the aspirations of the business owners. But I have my doubts. The Cuban government has never been conciliatory and does not look favorably on private employment. Diaz-Canel has a golden opportunity to go out on an economic limb that will undoubtedly benefit society.”

Nora, owner of a hairdressing salon, says “I expect the government to commit to creating a legal framework that legitimizes all private businesses. A permanent dialogue channel must be established. When people talk, they understand each other and fears and prejudices go away. What needs to be fought is poverty, not those who make money and benefit society.”

Many entrepreneurs consulted believe that the authorities should reverse the productive framework and accelerate a wage reform that allows state employees — currently 75% of the workforce on the island — to earn fair wages.

They must close inefficient companies, which are the majority, or privatize them, allow greater autonomy or create real cooperatives where workers are the owners.

At present, apathy prevails in Cuba and a large percentage of citizens do not believe that things will change and more than a few self-employed consider that the time has come to demand a better deal. We will have to wait for the will of the new president.

What Do Cuban Dissidents Think About Diaz-Canel? / Ivan Garcia

On Monday, 22 March 2016, during his visit to Cuba, President Barack Obama met in the United States Embassy in Havana with a group of Cuban dissidents, among them Manuel Cuesta Morua (to Obama’s left), and the independent journalists Miriam Leiva (to Morua’s left) and Miriam Celaya (to Obama’s right). Source: Cubanet.

Iván García, 30 April 2018 — Manuel Cuesta Morúa, a 55-year-old Afro-Cuban historian of average height and thin build, is probably one of Cuba’s most intellectually gifted dissidents.

Morúa’s political proposals are based on a social democratic model. He has tried different strategies, looking for a legal angle that would allow him to carry out his projects legitimately. The military dictatorship, however, has thwarted him. He considers himself to be a man of the left, a position from he articulates his ideas.

The arrival of Miguel Díaz-Canel — a 58-year-old engineer from the town of Falcón in Villa Clara province, about 300 kilometers east of Havana — marks the first time someone born after the triumph of the Cuban revolution has ascended to power. He is part of a generation that, for differing reasons, began to dissent from the Marxist, anti-democratic and totalitarian socialism established by Fidel Castro. continue reading

The hardline, diehard generation is passing away. In the current political climate, the most eloquent spokespersons, both official and dissident, were born during the height of the Cold War. They experienced the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the international communist bastion, the former Soviet Union.

The dialectical struggle will not be resolved at the point of a gun. The system will have to reinvent itself, unleash productive economic forces and rely on the private sector if it wants to bring an adequate level of prosperity to Cubans frustrated by the precarious conditions of their lives.

At one time Díaz-Canel, Manuel Cuesta Morúa, Luis Cino, Angel Moya and the economist Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello were all in the same ideological trenches. For reasons of their own, they stopped applauding Fidel Castro and began a long, arduous journey aimed at establishing a democratic society in their homeland.

For Morúa, the transfer of power to Díaz-Canel, “can be read in several ways, all of them interesting. The generational change, no matter who is its public face, puts society on a more equal footing when it comes to dealing with those in power,” he says.

He adds, “The only thing left to do now is make demands. Díaz-Canel is an obstructionist president. He has very little legitimacy. He is not a historical figure and he has not won an election. Every person on the street says, ’I didn’t vote for him.’ The government is incorrect when it claims that Cuba holds indirect elections. Elections here are by acclamation. To date, this president has no agenda. He comes off as a clone.”

When I ask him if he thinks it is time for dissidents to change tactics and devise a strategy to reach out to ordinary citizens, Cuesta Morúa responds, “I think it’s time to think more about politics, to offer a clearer alternative. It’s time to step up to the plate, but in political terms.”

In Lawton, a neighborhood of low-slung houses and steep streets on the southern outskirts of Havana, is the headquarters of the human rights group The Ladies in White. Most of its members are mothers, wives or daughters who had never before been interested in politics.

Their dispute with the regime centers on their demands for release of their sons, husbands and fathers, who were unjustly imprisoned by Fidel Castro. Their protest marches, during which they walk carrying gladiolas, were brutally suppressed by agents of the regime’s special services. The Cuban government’s actions led to strong public condemnations from the international community.

After entering into negotiations brokered by the Catholic church and the Spanish government, Raúl Castro’s regime agreed, for the first time, to release some political prisoners and to grant The Ladies in White space along Havana’s Fifth Avenue to carry out peaceful protest marches.

After their release most of the seventy-five former political prisoners left Cuba. The Ladies in White are still subject to brutal repression by the Castro regime, which has denied them access to the space it once gave them permission to use.

The Ladies in White’s main strategy involves street protests. Angel Moya Acosta, the 53-year-old husband of Berta Soler, leader of The Ladies in White, believes “that the Cuban political opposition needs to confront the regime. If we want people to take to the streets, the dissident community has to take to the streets and to actively persuade the people. This is not a problem about unity. Changing the electoral system in Cuba is up to the opposition and — except for some exceptions such as UNPACU, the Pedro Luis Boitel Front and the Forum for Freedom — that is not happening. Anything else is an excuse for not doing anything.”

According to Moya, the selection of Díaz-Canel was expected. “Nothing in Cuba will change. Repression could even increase. Díaz-Canel indicated that major national decisions will still be made by Raúl Castro. And he ended in inaugural speech with the outdated slogans ’homeland or death’, ’socialism or death’ and ’we will win’.”  Everyone on the island knows that real power in Cuba still rests with Raúl Castro.”

Luis Cino Álvarez, 61, one of the strongest voices in independent journalism, says he “does not expect any political reforms from the Díaz-Canel government except, perhaps, some slight fixes to the economy. He has already stated what we can expect: more socialism and a continuation of the policies of Fidel and Raúl Castro. Stagnation in its purest form. I believe that now is the time for dissidents to come up with a better strategy for confronting the regime.”

Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello, a 71-year-old economist, thinks that “Díaz-Canel is a person with many illusions. He held a meeting of the Council of Ministers that was illegal, saying that new appointments to the council had been postponed until July. Díaz-Canel feels very comfortable governing. And that is not a positive thing. When they govern, all the word’s presidents feel pressure due to multiple demands from different sectors of society.” She adds,”Cuban dissidents followed the wrong path. They should have taken the road of the people. But with each step they get further and further away from it.”

If there is anything upon which the fragmented local dissident community agrees, it is that the government of Miguel Díaz-Canel represents the beginning of a significant new era. They face two dilemmas: either find a way to motivate thousands of citizens to demand democracy or watch the military dictatorship celebrate the centenary of Fidel Castro’s revolution with a parade though the Plaza.

 

Blacks and Mixed-Race, in Cuba’s Dissidence and Council of State / Iván García

The vice presidents of the State Council elected on 19 April 2018, Inés María Chapman Waugh, from Holguin, a hydraulic engineer and president of the National Institute of Hydraulic Resources, and Beatriz Johnson Urrugia, from Santiago, a chemical engineer and president of the Provincial Assembly of the Popular Power of Santiago de Cuba. Taken from Afropunk.

Ivan Garcia, 7 May 2018 — Fidel Castro’s revolution was always more political than economic. He was never able to produce sewing needles and disposable diapers. He had an incredible ability to multiply poverty, reduce livestock and, based on nonsense, bury the sugar industry.

The sooty pots on the stove remain empty and what was left of the Cuban ‘New Man’ wanders amid the frenetic reggaeton, drinks alcohol distilled with industrial coal, and dreams of itinerant plans to emigrate.

The majority of Cubans do not take the new government seriously. Pánfilo, “the old man who inhabits ‘Vivir del Cuento’ [Living By Your Wits] on TV on Monday nights, should be the president, because he always reflects the real problems of Cubans in his television programs,” says Eddy, a mulato who sells religious objects in the Calzada de Diez de Octubre. continue reading

Miguel Diaz-Canel and the renewed Council of State is a joke. And believe me, it’s not a metaphor. To Nilda, a nurse, ’guajiro of Falcón’ — as Diaz-Canel is sometimes called — and Salvador Valdés Mesa, his second-in-command, they represent “ebony and ivory,” recalling the old song by Stevie Wonders and Paul McCartney.

In Cuba there is an overflowing racism that goes from personal prejudices, black segregation to inverted discrimination, that is, blacks who are more racist than the worst white racist. There are cruel jokes. Offenses abound around the color of one’s skin. And fear that some ‘smut’ may be part of your white family.

Blacks were always discriminated against. They were left at a disadvantage that morning in 1886 when the Spanish Crown abolished slavery on the island. They had no property, no money, no academic training.

They paid the price, and they would continue to pay it in the years to come. They are the poorest of the poor. They lead the ranking in numbers in prisons and commit the most despicable crimes. They live in the worst houses. They receive fewer dollars from remittances from family abroad. And those who run private businesses are a minority.

They tend to triumph in music, sports and lately in politics. Both in the dissidence and within the regime, the numbers of blacks and mestizos have increased.

There are numerous black and mixed-race opponents and independent journalists. Among those who are at the head of groups are Berta Soler, Oscar Elias Biscet, Manuel Cuesta Morúa and Juan Antonio Madrazo.

A free journalist, who preferred not to reveal his name, says that the first time he went to a dissident meeting, “he was amazed at how many prietos there were. According to the last census, the total black and mixed-race population is thirty-one percent, but I believe that currently in the opposition it’s more like 60 percent. And beware.”

Rosa Elvira, who works on a farm, believes that “in Cuba racism is a fairy tale. Yes, there are prejudices, but more and more you see more mixed couples. Here blacks and whites are equally screwed. There are whites worse than the most criminal blacks. And blacks who are real bad luck stories.”

On the current Council of State, the president is white (Miguel Diaz-Canel) and the first vice president is black (Salvador Valdés Mesa). Of the six vice-presidents, three are women, two of them black (Inés María Chapman and Beatriz Johnson) and one white (Gladys Bejerano). The three male vice presidents are white. Of the rest, black women are Miriam Nicado, Ileana Amparo Flores, Yipsi Moreno and Felicia Martínez. Mixed-race women: Martha del Carmen Mesa, Bárbara Alexis and Rosalina Fournier. White women: Teresa Amarelle, Susely Morfa, Elizabeth Peña, Ivis Niuba Villa and Reina Salermo. Of the men, of dark skin there is only one, Carlos Alberto Martínez, director of the Calixto García hospital.

“They may appear on their ID cards as whites, but in the Council of State there are some who are really mixed-race,” says Aleida, a retired teacher (referring to Roberto Morales, Homero Acosta, Ulises Guilarte, Rafael Santiesteban, Raúl Alejandro Palmero and Yoerkys Sánchez) . It’s just that in Cuba, el que no tiene de congo tiene de carabalí,” she laughs, using a phrase that suggests everyone in Cuba has some African heritage.

When you ask her why, precisely now the regime has decided to increase its quota of blacks and mixed-race, she shrugs her shoulders, opens her eyes wide and responds:

“I think it’s to shut people up out there. Imagine, the United States, which they always told us was the most racist country in the world, chose a dark president. And every time you watch an American TV show, there are blacks. These people (the government) had to up their game. And they began to change the Central Committee and the Council of State. What worries me is that, to be up-to-date, they put blacks wherever they want, but the professional quality leaves something to be desired. That Estaban Lazo, may God forgive me because I am black, is thick as a plank. And Salvador Valdés, people call him ‘the mute’ because he doesn’t even speak. This having so many blacks and women in the government is just hypocrisy, because in Cuba those who decide are the same as always, the old white people who fought in the Sierra.”

Cándido, a busdriver, believes that “stronger than racism, is the fact that in Cuba, whether you are white, black, mulato or Chinese, you can not get out of poverty. No matter the color of those who govern, they do it with their backs to people. It is not a race or sex problem. It is a matter of listening to the people, solving problems and being efficient. It seems to me that they put those blacks and those women that nobody knows on Council of State just to make up the numbers.”

Jordán, a lawyer, thanks the government for putting in more women, blacks and mestizos. “But nothing is gained if everyone votes unanimously and they don’t stand up in the National Assembly to raise the problems suffered by the people. The issue is not black or white. It’s about having the balls to say what is really happening in Cuba. They say that in the dissidence there are many blacks, but they are invisible to the majority of the population. Few people know them and when the government talks about them they label them as terrorists or mercenaries.”

All the interviewees approve the increase in the number of women and blacks in the government and also in the ranks of the Communist Party. But they want them to be able to make important decisions.

They want them to sit in parliament not only to raise their hands to vote yes on everything, but to take advantage of the presence of the higher ups to speak up and say things. To be something more than a black face to those watching internationally. They want women and men, black, mixed-race or white who do not have the surname Castro, to really govern.

Cubans Air Their Views on Miguel Diaz-Canel / Ivan Garcia

Miguel Díaz-Canel (white shirt and raised arm) and his wife Lis Cuesta, surrounded by State Security agents, go to vote at their electoral college in Santa Clara, on Sunday, March 11, 2018. Taken from USA Weekly.

Ivan Garcia, 20 April 2018 — Summer 1993. When night fell in Falcón, a little place next to the Central Highway, crossed by the Sagua la Chica and Jagüeyes rivers, people were sitting by their front doors, telling stories, and drinking home-made rum distilled with cow-shit.

Those were the difficult years of the “Special Period“, and in Falcón, like in the rest of the country, with officially-decreed twelve-hour-long power cuts which turned Cuba into a dark and silent island, people killed time like that, trying to make the summer heat more bearable. continue reading

Miguel Mario Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, the great-grandson of an Asturian, Ramón Díaz-Canel, who emigrated to Cuba in the mid-nineteenth century looking for a better life, was born in Falcón, in Placetas, Villa Clara, some 320 km east of Havana.

Falcón is an idyllic spot, where you can hear the cocks crowing in the distance. Most of its 6,000 inhabitants raise cattle, pick tobacco, and grow fruit, root plants and vegetables. The main celebrations are the parades, which go through the Sagüeros y Jagüeyeros river neighbourhoods. The Falconers, including Díaz-Canel, still remember the floods of 18th and 19th August, 2008, when many people had to run for a nearby hill, because of the fierce rains of the tropical storm Fay. There were no fatalities or injuries, but important material possessions were lost.

Antonio, who is retired and a native of the area, tells us that “some years back, Díaz-Canel was slim, wore his hair long and liked American music. His family and he were, and are, good citizens. Before he was elected First Secretary of the Party — a kind of mayor — in Villa Clara, he held an important post in the Communist Youth Union. But the man came home in the blackout and played guitar for his CDR bodyguard or talked about sports, to anyone.

He was well thought of in the nine years he administered Villa Clara, a province with 13 councils and just over 8,000 inhabitants. Elpidio, a resident in La Esperanza, Ranchuelo, Villa Clara, remembers that, “The fellow went about all over the city on his Chinese bicycle, and, in spite of the shortages, he was always worrying about the people there. A programme started on the local radio called High Tension and listeners could phone in and report their complaints. He was the first Cuban politician to authorise a night centre with performances for homosexuals and transvestites”.

In 2003, he was promoted to First Party Secretary in Holguín province, 800 km northeast of Havana. Daniel, a Holguinero, now living in the capital, recalls that “In Holguín, Díaz-Canel was not as spontaneous as he was in Villa Clara. He stopped smiling, and put on weight, like the other party leaders and government functionaries. He talked in bureaucratic jargon”.

In Holguín he met his present wife, Lis Cuesta Peraza. He did something not all that common in the macho behaviour of the Communist bureaucrats: instead of having her as a lover, he divorced the mother of his two children and married Cuesta, a professor in the Instituto Superior Pedagógico José de la Luz y Caballero. “Hopefully she will become the First Lady. That would give her prestige, because presidents don’t look so good if they are alone, like single people or widowers. Better to be accompanied by a lady, especially if she is well-prepared, like her”,  says Mercedes, a retired teacher.

In 2009, Díaz-Canel was appointed Minister of Higher Education, a post he held until 2012. At that time he used to wear a typical white guayabera the uniform of the Chinese creoles [there has been a substantial Chinese population in Cuba since the mid 19th century]. “In those three years as a Minister, I don’t recall Díaz-Canel doing anything out of the ordinary. On the contrary, he continued plodding along on the same old socialist treadmill, quoting stuff from Fidel, and repeating the refrain that the University is Only for the Revolutionaries”, says Sergio, an engineer.

The olive green autocracy, an insane system of personality cult, never showed any sign of providing good quality politicians. Fidel governed. The rest of them applauded and followed orders. In July 2006, Fidel had a gastrointestinal perforation and, in a historial arbitrary act, appointed as his successor his brother Raul, a natural-born conspirator with dictatorial obsession, but who, out of habit, worked on a team and listened to other points of view.

According to the gossip merchants, Castro II likes people who are like him. Whether it was because of his appearance, or his CV, what we do know is that, when he took over from his brother, he had already looked carefully at Díaz-Canel, a guy who had some forty-year-old women sighing over him.

In 2012, when he appointed him as Vice President of the Consejo de Estado, Raúl put him on the ladder to the presidency. Six years have passed, but Díaz-Canel still looks a bit nervous in public.

“He behaves as if he is still living in Falcón”, says Antonio, a retired chap. “Sometimes he looks ill-at-ease, or acts like a fool”, says Yadira, a university student. “His behaviour is contradictory. I remember he was the first leader to show up with a tablet at a party meeting”, adds Victor, another student. In the opinion of Rogelio, a private taxi driver, “One day Canel talks like a liberal, and the next day like a dictator”.

One good thing people in Havana do know is that, thanks to Díaz-Canel, ICRT transmits live the games between Real Madrid and Barcelona. “The man is a Barcelonista to his dying breath. People like that get high blood pressure when Barcelona loses. I think that when he finds his feet as President, they will put out live transmissions of the NBA and the Big Leagues. He loves sportS”, says a state TV producer.

The Puerto Rican journalist, Benjamin Morales, from El Nuevo Dia, wrote last April 17th: “Guaracabulla, in Placetas, has a ceiba tree there marking what is said to be the centre of the island, and, from this week, it could also be said to mark the centre of Cuban leadership, when Miguel Díaz Canel, its most famous son, becomes the first president not called Castro Ruz and who also was not a guerilla”.

After seeking opinions on the street — which did not include those of Antúnez, a well-known opposition figure in Placetas — Morales continued: “The people are  overcome with enthusiasm, but don’t let themselves get too carried away, because they understand that change is good, but only when it doesn’t affect people’s well-being”.

For most people in Havana, who spend all their time trying to put food on the table for their families and to survive the shortages of Caribbean socialism, the much-proclaimed presidential succession has not fulfilled their expectations.

“It’s more of the same. Seems like more Castroism, by another name, setting us up with “Canelism”. I don’t expect much from him. If he manages to sort out the disaster that Cuba has become, they’ll have to put up a statue to him”, says Diana, a bank employee.

Miguel Díaz-Canel could just as easily turn into an Adolfo Suárez (Spain’s first democratically elected prime minister after the Franco dictatorship) as become another Nicholas Maduro (current president of Venezuela). We’ll have to wait and see.

 

Translated by GH

Cuba: We Have a President (or a Puppet) / Iván García

Miguel Díaz-Canel. Taken from Huffpost.

Ivan Garcia, 23 April 2018 — Lacking the solemnity of a conclave in the Vatican to elect a pope or the white smoke announcing the new Holy Father, on Thursday, April 19, at the Convention Center, west of Havana, the new Council of State and its president were announced, those who will rule the destinies of Cuba in the next five years.

There were no surprises. The script was already written. Raul Castro awarded the position of president of the Councils of State and of Ministers to Miguel Díaz-Canel, an electronics engineer born on April 20, 1960 in the village of Falcón, a rural municipality in Placetas, Villa Clara province, about 200 miles from the Cuban capital. continue reading

Now we’re in a wait-and-see time before the performance of Diaz-Canel. In the history of the Castro dictatorship, camouflaged as a country in a perennial revolution, there were two presidents*: Manuel Urrutia and Osvaldo Dorticós, managed at will by Fidel Castro.

The novelty in this comedy is that there will be a kind of cohabitation. A president of the nation next to the first secretary of the Communist Party.

Who will have greater power? According to the quirky Cuban Constitution, which was reinforced in the summer of 2002 by Castro I with a perpetual Marxist socialism, the lead role is held by the Party.

The brothers from Birán, by-the-book autocrats, performed both functions when they governed.  But now Diaz-Canel has his hands tied.  A kind of Big Brother will supervise him from the headquarters of the Central Committee.

In practice, what has happened is a distribution of powers. An elderly lover of vodka with orange juice like Raul Castro, simply got bored with controlling internal finances, self-employment and the unsettling double currency system with its seven types of exchange rates that distort the national economy.

That disastrous puzzle is now in the hands of Diaz-Canel. To move the economy forward in Taliban mode, there will need to be a magician or a suicide. If the changes upset the most conservative sector of the party, they will pass the bill to Diaz-Canel. He is a disposable politician. He is not untouchable.

But if within five or ten years the economic and social situation of Cuba continues along the same paths or gets even worse, there will be a shot at the target, a culprit, who can pay for the broken dishes.

With the presidential relay, Raul Castro, eternal conspirator, ran out of revolutionary gods. Diaz-Canel and the majority of the current Council of State, with the exceptions of Ramiro Valdés, Leopoldo Cintra Frías and Guillermo García, are dispensable.

Diaz-Canel appears to be faced with mission impossible, as long as the current economic model is maintained. After nine o’clock in the morning, when he strode into the session at the convention center, along with his political manager Raul Castro, dressed in black suits and red ties, the new president looked like a deer in the headlights.

The ratification of the positions, selected by a mysterious commission, was a piece of cake in a nation like Cuba, where the parliament votes unanimously, or almost, on any election or bill put before it.

Diaz-Canel’s first speech was lousy. Quotes from Fidel Castro and singer-songwriter Silvio Rodríguez. Monotonous pronunciation, a bland tone, no enthusiasm. Fortunately, he does not have the diction problems of the primitive Esteban Lazo, president of the National Assembly, nor make mistakes when reading.

Miguel Diaz-Canel left many Cubans open-mouthed, like the child who was promised an ice cream and then deceived by being given a purgative. To Elier, a taxi driver, the very first words disappointed him. “He said he did not come to promise anything and that he was going to continue to work along the same lines. Wow, everything stays the same. I expected him to make important announcements or at least to talk about what will happen with the self-employment licenses that have been suspended. But nothing, the guy did not talk about that, as if the fact that the economy is a disaster was not important. The kitchen robot should be an actor in a telenovela, not the president of a country that is bankrupt.”

A brigade of bricklayers who are repairing an apartment in Havana’s La Víbora neighborhood listened to the new president’s speech on the radio. “Something else was expected. From what I heard, the man has nothing on the ball. His first speech was pure drool to Fidel and his compadre Raúl, whom he has to thank him for giving him the job without even holding a raffle,” says Manuel, bricklayer.

On a tour of Diez de Octubre, Havana’s most populated municipality, looking for the impressions of ordinary people, a butcher, who was cutting chunks of frozen chicken with an ax and putting them in a refrigerator confesses that he did not have time to see the speech. “What did he say?” He asks. And upon learning that he did not say anything new, he replies: “I imagined it. This isn’t any kind of arrangement. The guy had a reputation in Villa Clara for being a good and liberal person, but then he climbed the ladder and now he doesn’t laugh. One more opportunist who coasts. Who takes advantage, because the opportunities are all bad.”

Carlos, a sociologist, is not surprised by the appointment of Díaz-Canel or his dull inaugural speech. “You can’t get blood from a stone. The self-centeredness of Fidel Castro clipped the wings of Cuba’s political class. Diaz-Canel is not creative and is more accustomed to listening and following directions from ‘above’ than having any autonomy of his own. I would be surprised if he was different, he’s Raul Castro’s private satellite. He’s in his pocket. He will not do what he wants. If he departs from the script, he will find himself in Combinado del Este (prison).”

Everyone interviewed believes Diaz-Canel is a puppet. To Douglas, a seller of online navigation cards, “the guy doesn’t rule on his own, he receives orders from the Padrino. These people (the regime) are like the mafia.”

Luisa, a clerk in a cafe that charges in hard currency, believes that “you have to give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the man does things right. What we can say is that we have the best-looking president in all of America.”

Idania, a priestess in the Santaria religion, recalls that one afternoon in 2013, “at the headquarters of the Yoruba Association, Diaz-Canel did a few dance steps from our religion. The man could be stuck in the past or take the country forward. Of course, he will have to change many things and fight with an army of prejudiced bureaucrats.”

Elvira, a teacher, was the only one consulted who mentioned the word democracy. “As long as Diaz-Canel is in the government or Raúl Castro is in the party, they will not implement an openly democratic system. a real one, not a fake one, Cuba will be bogged down in the same swamp. The Cuban problem is economic, but also political.”

The new president is facing difficult times. An economy adrift, an aging population, low productivity, widespread apathy among citizens, especially the youngest, and aspirations to emigrate from an important sector of society.

The demands are multiple. From lowering the prices of food and items sold in stores that deal only in hard currency, raising wages to cover current inflation, improving public transport, expanding private work and small business, stop extorting Cubans living abroad with exorbitant passport fees and allow them to participate actively in national political and economic life.

In baseball terms, Miguel Mario Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, comes on as a relief pitcher with the bases full, no one out, and the best batter in the league at the plate. He does not have easy.

On April 20, the day of his 58th birthday, in his bedroom, next to his wife Lis Cuesta Peraza, the first lady, he will be able to analyze coldly the dimension of the assignment that Raul Castro has left him.

Any mistake can bury the fragile system that his predecessors insist on calling Revolution. There are some gifts that may be poisoned.

*Translator’s note: In the early years of the Castro dictatorship there was the position of “president” — currently the person formally designated as President of the Council of State fills that position.

The Castro Regime, an Aged Boxer Who Won’t Leave the Ring / Iván García

Cubanet

Iván García, 16 April 2018 — By all accounts it is like a bad divorce. No one remembers the exact moment when things went from applause for every revolutionary project, no matter how ludicrous it might have seemed, to a torrent of unfulfilled promises and hollow rhetoric.

Martí Noticias wanted to solicit opinions on Cuba’s social, political and economic situation and on the country’s future prospects. It first chatted with three well-informed people, then it asked thirteen ordinary Cubans if they feel they are represented in the current power structure.

One of those interviewed was fifty-five-year-old Igor, who worked in Moscow’s railway industry during the Cold War and views politicians as a necessary evil but believes that “they are the ones who rule the world.” continue reading

“Not everyone can be a politician,” he says. “They have to have leadership skills and a gift for oratory in order to mobilize large segments of society. They must rely on image consultants and experts in specific fields. They need surveys to gauge levels of popular support and to determine what people want.”

Igor believes that a government has to govern on behalf of all its citizens, not just its supporters. “That is the main problem with the Cuban system,” he says. “Its leaders don’t listen to those with different opinions. Most of the island’s current politicians don’t know how to behave or express themselves in public. They have trouble reading and problems with diction. They have no empathy and seem to be improvising. My impression is that both the old government and the new government have no idea how to get us out of the current quagmire.”

In Igor’s opinion, they are just throwing stones, stalling for time, unable to grab the bull by the horns. “[President-designate] Miguel Díaz-Canel isn’t unattractive like other Cuban leaders, who come off like stock characters from a Soviet-era movie. When he was the party’s first-secretary in Villa Clara province, he was more spontaneous. Now he seems like a remote-controlled robot. He speaks without moving a muscle in his face, which is a sign that he doesn’t believe what he is saying. I don’t expect anything new from Díaz-Canel. Exhaustion is what will bring about real change in Cuba, when they realize they are just thrashing around aimlessly.”

From the time he was an adolescent, twenty-one-year-old history student Damián, was that rare individual who actually felt compelled to read the Communist Party newspaper Granma and watch state television news shows. He followed politics like a soccer fan. “At first, I believed what the state press said. But not now,” says Damián. “I read between the lines. I realized that communism is a utopian dream. And a society cannot afford to waste several generations, as has happened in Cuba, chasing a fantasy. The socialist ideal sounds nice — to give voice and a better quality of life to the dispossessed — but Marxist-Leninist ideology has failed all over the world.”

Damián asks himself what kind of society Cuba aspires to be. “We went from the Batista dictatorship to a totalitarian regime with overtones of nationalism. It made excuses for the lack of democracy because it felt it was under siege by the United States. That era has passed but Cuba doesn’t realize it. Díaz-Canel, or whoever takes over, will continue following the same script. That’s why Cubans don’t have any expectations. I hope I am wrong but what the Castro regime most closely resembles is an aged boxer who refuses to leave to ring, who wants to keep fighting even after the bell has rung.”

What most bothers Carlos, a sixty-six-year-old sociologist, is having been fooled for so long by Fidel Castro’s rhetoric. Carlos is no dissident. He is an intellectual who, like so many others, believes that time is up for Cuba’s current system. “Its time ran out decades ago. Behind all the clatter about a ’sustainable and prosperous socialism’ is bad faith and a hunger for power. Planned economies don’t work. [The regime] could opt for the Chinese or Vietnamese models, which have capitalist economies and autocratic one-party governments, but they don’t dare,” he says.

The worst part, he says, is that it has killed the aspirations of many talented people. “Men and women alike, almost all with university degrees, have seen emigration as the only way out. The National Assembly only represents the interests of the regime. It doesn’t matter that blacks and women make up forty percent of its delegates; every measure it votes on is approved unanimously. I see Miguel Diaz-Canel as a Russian matrioshka doll. He always follows a prepared script. Maybe I’m wrong, but Diaz-Canel represents the continuation of a failed system.”

The perception one gets from conversations with less well-informed Cubans, people who are apathetic about politics, is that they are not part of the game. They live in another dimension, one focused on survival. Of the thirteen people interviewed by Martí Noticias, six did not care who succeeded Raúl Castro as president, whether it was Díaz-Canel or the ballplayer Yulieski Gurriel.

“Man, what problem is that stone faced parasite (Díaz-Canel) going to solve? Here people just want a few pesos to get drunk, have something decent to eat, capture some fresh ’mangoes’ (girls) and play pululu (a video game app),” says a young vendor who sells internet SIM cards in a Havana park.

Three of those interviewed believe things could get better under Díaz-Canel. One of them is Anselmo, a forty-nine-year-old bus driver. “We won’t be worse off,” he says. “If Trump can meet with the fat guy from North Korea, he can meet with the man from Villa Clara. We’ll see what happens. We can’t count on Venezuela or Brazil any more. It would be ironic if we find ourselves once again in the arms of the bolos (the Russians). If that happens, it will be the overseers who have to lose the most.”

Four people are very pessimistic, among them Dania, a thirty-six-year-old dentist. “This situation has been going on for a long time in Cuba,” she says. “The best solution is to leave the country, whether things change or not.”

One option for a large segment of the population is to decamp to other shores. Watching the situation from afar is pleasanter than fighting for democratic change from within. That is a job for patriots.

 

Concerning When We Ate Cats in Cuba / Iván García

Iván García, 7 April 2018 — “I was born during the Special Period, in 1990. Twenty years later, my parents told me the truth: my birth brought them to tears,” says Ricardo, today a university graduate.

I can understand that. In my house, too, we went through difficult times when my sister gave birth during the height of the “Special Period in Times of Peace.” As ostentatious as that was the official name given to one of the blackest intervals suffered in 59 years by the Cuban people–and that is saying a lot.

An old proverb says that a child comes into this world with a loaf of bread under his arm. But in the 90s, to have a child in Cuba meant the opposite: to lose an arm, if not both, just to get a piece of bread. continue reading

The story of this war-without-cannon-blasts could fill multiple tomes. In 2018 the mere mention of the Special Period to a Cuban is enough to send shivers down his spine.

The first time I had any notion of the “Special Period” was in the summer of 1989. Upon inaugurating an AKM rifle manufacturing plant in Camagüey, Fidel Castro made mention of what we would be facing. Later, during a function at the Karl Marx theater in Miramar, he half-jokingly told the women in attendance, “Take good care of your wardrobes–you’ll need them in the coming years.”

The people on the Island never lived abundantly. There was always a shortage of something. Besides holding back individual liberties (about which those of us born after the Revolution had no concept), Father State guaranteed to each of his citizens a poor life, but a dignified one. Thanks to the petroleum pipe from Moscow.

Prior to that silent war, we could buy two pairs of pants a year, three shirts and one pair of shoes, with a ration book for “industrial products.” These were paid for in Cuban pesos, the national currency.

The ration book for groceries back then was more generous. Nothing to write home about, but less emaciated than in later years. There were foodstuffs for sale in unregulated venues. At the dairy stores, boxes with bottles of fresh milk, yogurt containers, and cheeses would be delivered at dawn, and nobody even entertained the thought of stealing them.

That was in the 70s or 80s. Back then we could not imagine the “surprise” that the olive-green* socialism had in store for us. It was terrible. People dropped weight as if they were going to a sauna every day. We were always hungry. Lines would form for half a day to buy pizza topped with boiled potato instead of cheese.

Starving and toothless old people would jam into the little cafés just to down a kind of infusion made with orange or grapefruit rind. As for animal products, you can only imagine. Culinary monstrosities appeared. The state laboratories hastily churned out soy hash, “meat” mass, oca pasta, and fricandel [a kind of “mystery-meat” hot dog], among other horrible inventions.

The dollar was prohibited, and what few valuable items there were, people would sell to afford food. When in July 1993 the dollar was decriminalized, my mother sold her record collection of Brazilian music for $39.

Others sold their furniture or exchanged it for a pig, which they would hide in the bathtub. It became fashionable to breed chickens on balconies and roofs. Many cats ended up in pots, in place of rabbits.

Exotic diseases appeared, such as polyneuritis, optical neuritis, and beriberi. On the streets, more than one person dropped like a fly from locomotive deficiencies. Public transportation disappeared and in its place emerged horse-drawn wagons, which are still functioning in rural towns. Tractors were replaced by ox-pulled plows.

The bicycle became the official vehicle of the people. The top brass, of course, continued getting around by car. There was serious talk about Option Zero, a plan to have army troops go though neighborhoods giving out food.

What prevented people from starting to die off in massive numbers from hunger, and Cuba becoming the North Korea of the Caribbean, were the measures adopted by Fidel Castro. Venturing far from socialist philosophy, and taking a liberal and market economy approach, the government allowed small business start-ups. The possession of hard currency was legalized.

All of this proved effective. Hundreds of citizens were able to progress, and the government stashed millions of dollars into its coffers.  But in 2009, a real crisis emerged that affected the entire planet. Facing a worldwide drop in oil prices, coupled with internal instability and squandering, Hugo Chávez–the new ally–whispered a message to the Castros: “I am running out of cash.” The Brothers from Birán** took the hint. And they started proclaiming the same decades-old speech they have sold to the Cuban people: Savings must be made. The belt must be tightened. One more time.

And so we go. In the midst of a storm. Without umbrellas. With an economy that is taking on water. And with foreign partners who view the regime with distrust for the absurdity of its investment laws and the dishonesty of its dealings. With thousands of Cubans leaving the country or trying to leave, to go anywhere, tired as they are of the aged government, and never forgetting the crude reality of the Special Period when in Cuba we ate cats.

Translator’s Notes:

*A reference to the color of the combat fatigues worn for years by Cuba’s top echelon of leaders. This epithet is often used by dissident Cuban writers when alluding to the Cuban government, its socio-political system, and its bureaucrats.

**A reference to the town in eastern Cuba that is the birthplace of Raúl and Fidel Castro.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

To Be "Rich" in Cuba / Ivan Garcia

In Cuba it is considered “rich” to have a private or successful restaurant, such as Porto Habana, on Calle E No. 158 between Calzada and 9a, Vedado, visited by celebrities passing through Havana. Taken from TripAdvisor.

Ivan Garcia, 4 April 2018 — From the twentieth floor of a building near the Havana Malecon the blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean look like you could touch them with your hands. From that height you can’t see the disastrous infrastructure of Havana. Or its broken streets, water leaks or the buildings torn apart by bad state management.

When Victor, owner of a micro-lodging business, feels frustrated, he spends an hour on the balcony with a cup of coffee watching the panoramic view offered by his apartment in the central neighborhood of Vedado. Before venting his worries about the rumored new government measures that will curb private work, he runs a a pocket comb over his gray and sparse hair. continue reading

“Do you know why Cuba is not flooded with fruit, food and quality services?” he asks, and before answering pauses to savor his coffee. “Well, it’s the government’s fault. If the State did not harass private individuals and, instead, empowered them, agricultural, dairy, livestock production and housing shortages would not be as dramatic as they are now.

“It is the government that has to answer for those deficiencies. Every time there are timid openings the creativity of the private sector is on display. If there were a legal framework, impartial courts and wholesale markets, business owners would not be forced to violate the laws, to try to find ways to avoid taxes and to practice double accounting.”

The Havana entrepreneur rents his apartment for the equivalent of 50 dollars a day, which would be 1,500 dollars a month. “Discounting taxes, I clear 1,100 dollars. Enough for the expenses of my wife and I who live in another apartment in the same building. My children are in Miami. With what I save, in any other kind of society, I could expand my business buying homes in poor condition or outsourcing those services to people who want to rent their homes, but do not have the resources. It’s the business cycle. Save money, then invest and earn more. I do not see any kind of crime in that intention. I do not know why the government wants us to always live in poverty.”

In the third section of the Economic Guidelines approved in 2010, a kind of road map instituted by the regime of Raúl Castro, it is stated that concentrations of wealth and capital will not be allowed for Cubans on the island. Eight years later, a segment of private entrepreneurs has accumulated a quantity of money, whether legally, with subtle subterfuges or under the table.

Onel, an economist, believes that “between 10 thousand and 20 thousand small business owners have been able to hoard between 10 thousand and 250 thousand dollars, some may even have amassed more than a million dollars. But, given that this is Cuba, gaining capital is a crime and you mark yourself as a suspicious person or presumed criminal, so those people invest in buying houses from relatives, or works of art or take the money out of the country, because they have relatives abroad,” he says and adds:

“Among them there are repatriated Cubans, who because they have more capital at the time of starting their business and knowledge of marketing, they have generated profits faster. There are also Cubans who live in the United States, who live off the income of their businesses on the island or share the profits with their families,” says the economist.

To have a fortune in Cuba is to travel through a minefield. When self-employment was forbidden by the autocracy of the Castro brothers, clandestine managers of businesses, warehouses and restaurants made money by stealing from the State. Most Cubans do not believe that the means of production are owned by all, as Marxist theory says. And at the first chance, they defraud the state in order to survive in the harsh conditions of Island socialism.

Carlos, who lives in Florida, recalls that “the first time I raised half a million pesos, the exchange rate of the time artificially equated the peso with the dollar, and I threw the money on the mattress of my room and slept on the bundles of notes,” he says with a smile from a restaurant in Miami.

“I was a supplies manager in a luxury hotel. I sold whatever I could under the table. Then, the money I earned was exchanged for dollars one-by-one with the hotel’s accounting manager. A negotiation. My plan was to fill my pockets and get out of that shit. I have friends who thought they could be millionaires in Cuba and ended up in jail. Like Roberto, the former manager of the World Ice Cream Parlor, on Santa Catalina Avenue,” says Carlos.

As he tells it, “Roberto came to grief because of the typical envy of the top leaders. He had a better Lada than the higher-ups. One morning, passing through Avenida Boyeros, Ramiro Valdés, who was then Minister of the Interior, observed that a bodyguard greeted Roberto as he passed by. He asked who that guy was and the bodyguard told him he was a compañero of State Security. Ramiro found out and discovered that he was a simple corrupt administrator and broke his balls. It is a very envious breed, if you presume to have more than them, they make your life impossible. Only they can be rich.”

Nobody in Cuba knows the limit of what you can and cannot have. The amount of money that sets off the alarms in the police apparatus of the regime is not known. “In the statutes, the determined amount of money that violates the laws is not specified. For example, Silvio Rodriguez [the singer], Alicia Alonso [the dancer] or the ballplayer Alfredo Despaigne, who plays in a professional league in Japan and has a millionaire’s salary, have six zero incomes and no one challenges them for economic crimes. The reason is ideological. If those who make money are inside the apparatus or comply with government rules, they are allowed. If they earn money through their own efforts, they will always be suspects,” says Beatriz, a lawyer.

On the island, acquiring certain material goods can pigeonhole a citizen as being suspected of ‘illicit enrichment’. “I used to sell toiletries and clothes. I was able to raise enough money to build my own business. I had two air conditioners, three plasma televisions, several appliances besides repairing my house. They opened a file on me for violating the laws, that is to say selling without the required license, they confiscated all my merchandise and electrical appliances, alleging that they had been acquired with dirty money. Ultimately, I was sentenced to three years in prison,” says Luis Alberto, a resident of the municipality of Diez de Octubre.

Those who accumulate a significant amount of capital try to fly below the radar. They don’t buy sumptuous mansions in Miramar or Siboney. Nor the latest cars or a yacht. It is exposing oneself too much to the public magnifying glass in a command and control socieity.

In Cuba, members of the club of the rich often dress in olive-green.