Iván García, 29 September 2015 — When the bearded guerrilla Fidel Castro on the night of 28 September 1960 founded a system of collective surveillance in every neighborhood, the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs), civil society in Cuba was annulled until further notice.
Not even Adolph Hitler’s Nazi Germany, with its full record of social intrusions, had structured a system of neighborhood cooperatives with espionage services.
The most similar equivalent might be Benito Mussolini’s Black Shirts, a paramilitary corps behind numerous episodes of physical or verbal violence and aggression against its political adversaries in Italy during the 1920s. Continue reading
When he is lucid, Dubiel has a photographic memory. Almost thirty years after the fact, he still remembers the names of remote villages in the Angolan jungle and can tell stories about a civil war there in which more than 300,000 Cuban soldiers and reservists were involved between 1975 and 1991.
Dubiel came back traumatized. It had been very hard seeing the bodies of comrades flying through the air from land mines and dealing with the deaths fellow soldiers whom he had befriended in the trenches. Continue reading
Ivan Garcia, 24 September 2015 — The best news for Celestino Cabrera, retiree, who lives in a neighborhood of low-rise houses and steep streets, was the arrival of half a kilogram of chicken per person at his area butcher shop.
“For a week now we’ve been waiting for the ration-book chicken. Lots of Pope, but zero grub,” he says with a smile while waiting in line at a ramshackle meatmarket on Font Street, in Lawton, 35 minutes from the center of Havana.
Throughout 40 years, Cabrera worked at stowing bags of sugar and wheat flour at the Havana port. His meager pension of 243 Cuban pesos (around 9 dollars) per month is just enough to purchase seven pounds of rice, five pounds of surgar, and the 20 ounces of beans that the State provides monthly via the ration book, a few vegetables, and with the rest of the money, he pays his electric bill. Continue reading
Ivan Garcia, 26 September 2015 — Let’s climb aboard a time machine. Into the future, of course. By now, Raul Castro has given up the throne. His son Alejandro has been tried for abuse of power, financial corruption and violations of human rights.
Luis Alberto Rodriguez Lopez-Callejas, the Cuban Martin Borman, has fled with a safety deposit box. His face appears on wanted posters issued by Interpol, which is offering a substantial reward for information leading to his capture. Continue reading
Ivan Garcia, 19 September 2015 — Right at noon on Thursday, September 17, two enormous Soviet-era KP3 trucks filled with trash were rumbling along Tenth of October Avenue towards the garbage dump on 100th Street in eastern Havana, escorted by a bulldozer and a police motorcycle.
Orestes, a community worker, has labored for twelve hours every day in various neighborhoods of the capital trying to clean up and beautify the city.
“The government’s orders are to clean up everything in the city we can. Trash pickup has been scheduled for different parts of town. There’s no shortage of resources or fuel,” says Orestes, head of a clean-up brigade that is collecting trash with a tractor fitted to haul a trailer. Continue reading
Ivan Garcia, Havana, 21 September 2015 — Almost everyone in Cuba remembers what they were doing on January 21, 1998. Stephen, who works in a steel factory southeast of the capital, recalls that he walked more than nine miles to attend the Mass of Pope Wojtyla in Revolution Square, the sacred precinct of the olive-green regime.
“I come from a Catholic family, but when Fidel came to power they stopped going to church out of fear. John Paul II was a kind of personal liberation, the reunion with my church, God, and Jesus. Afterward, travel to the island has become fashionable for the Vatican. The visit of Benedict XVI, like that of Francis I, seemed quite bland to me. More media hype than anything else,” says Stephen, as he goes to Mass with a portrait of the Virgin of Charity, Patroness of Cuba. Continue reading
Poster of the pope in a street in central Havana. From San Juan 8
Ivan Garcia, 18 September 2015 — After enjoying a strong espresso, sixty-eight year old Samuel Quijano lights a hand-rolled cigarette and looks at the sky, hoping for a sign of rain.
Quijano is the owner of a small parcel of land, located one and a half kilometers from the National Highway, where he grows vegetables, beans and has a row of tired banana trees.
“The drought is killing the land. It seems like a curse from God. There isn’t enough rain to produce good crops. The animals get sick and die from hunger and thirst. We’ll see if Pope Francis performs a miracle and brings us rain,” says Samuel, who is tending an emaciated cow as she forages on a small hillside. Continue reading
Ivan Garcia, 17 September 2015 — For Nicolás Sarmientos, 73, making his usual rounds between the farm market, the bodega and the carters who sell fruits and vegetables in Havana is almost an extreme sport.
Although in theory we are knocking on the door of autumn, in Cuba the thermometers are soaring. The Meteorological Institute announced that the temperature in the capital exceeded 100 degrees, a height never reached.
Under a blazing sun and a numbing humidity, Nicolas searches the stands at the farm market for meat and beans to take home.
“The pantry and the fridge are empty,” he says, while looking at a poster of the Argentine Pope Jorge Mario Bergoglio with a Cuban flag in the background, attached to a column splattered with the red earth of the farms. Continue reading
Ivan Garcia, 8 September 2015 — A little more than 25 years ago, a handful of human rights activists began issuing weekly reports that accused the military government of Fidel Castro of violating political, economic and free-expression liberties in Cuba.
These were the hard years of the regime in Havana. The Internet was in diapers and there was no cellphone service. The Castro brothers controlled Cuban society with an iron fist.
The Island lived in another dimension. Many Cubans only learned that the Berlin Wall was knocked down by wrathful Germans from the Communist East two months after it happened. Continue reading
Ivan Garcia, 2 September 2015 — After working two years in a remote part of Africa, Migdalia, a pediatrician, carefully considered the summer vacation packages available in Cuba. In the end she opted to stay three nights in a five-star hotel in Cayo Santa Maria, on the northern coast of Villa Clara, 460 kilometers east of Havana.
“Although I am a professional, I’ve never stayed in a first-class hotel. I used most of the money I saved in Africa to renovate my kitchen and repair the roof of my house. My family and I decided to spend the rest on a stay at a tourist resort, which turned out to be quite expensive. A three-night ’all-inclusive’ cost us 996 CUC, including transportation. That’s the equivalent of 25,000 pesos, as much as the cost of a plane ticket to Madrid,” she says smiling as she and her family wait for the bus that will take them to the hotel. Continue reading
Ivan Garcia, 11 September 2015 — It was already duck on an extremely hot day without a hint of a breeze, when a white Mercedes Benz van with the blue top of the national police pulled up alongside Red Plaza in Vibora, a neighborhood half an hour by car from the center of Havana.
Just after midnight, dozens of adults, young people and teens walked toward their homes or huddled on the corners, after the end of one of the frequent reggaeton and salsa music parties sponsored by the local branch of the Ministry of Culture.
The pretext for organizing these parties could be anything. The end of summer, a symbolic date of the Revolution, or a way to collect thousands of pesos selling beer on tap and light snacks to the residents on the edge of the capital, mostly blacks and mixed-race and with few recreational options.
After the timba ends and the drums stop, the good part starts. Brawls with knives, sex in any corner, urinating in the street, drunk and feisty, after the party. Continue reading
Iván García, 4 September 2015 — At the beginning of August, a month before the start of the new school year, Rigoberto and his wife scoured several Havana stores in search of school supplies and a pair of shoes for their son, a student in the sixth grade.
“Do the math,” Rigoberto says, grumbling. “A pair of sneakers, 42 CUC*; a backpack, 32 CUC; 12 notebooks, 12.50; a kit containing a ruler, slide rule, and compass, 9 CUC, and covers for notebooks and books, 3 CUC. Total: 98.50 CUC. My wife and I are professionals and between the two of us, we make 1,470 Cuban pesos per month, which comes out to 60 convertible pesos (CUC). The government crows about how they provide free education, but in practice, Cuban families every day must lay out more money in hard currency for school supplies.” Continue reading
Ivan Garcia, 28 August 2015 — When it comes to making a market economy work in a nation where social and political control rests with the communist party, China and Vietnam are acknowledged experts. In both countries political rights are restricted and opposition is suppressed.
In 1986 — one year before Mikhail Gorbachev introduced perestroika in the former mecca of global communism — the government in Hanoi initiated its own economic reform, dubbed Doi Moi.
In 1978, two years after the death of Mao, China’s Deng Xiao Ping gradually began a transformation that shook the country to its foundations. Continue reading
Ivan Garcia, 21 June 2015 — When Berta Soler, leader of one of three splinter groups of the Ladies in White, convened a referendum on her continued command of the organization following a scandal in Fall 2014 regarding alleged verbal abuse of a member, it marked a milestone in dissident circles – more so for being strange than for being novel.
No culture or custom exists in Cuban society for democratic standards or referendums to balance out the longstanding human tradition of wielding power at will.
Fifty-six years of the country being run like a neighborhood grocery store, in a vertical manner and without any braking mechanisms in place to impede the creation of mini-tyrants, is the main cause of disrespect towards laws, of scant democratic habits, and of a tendency among our people to administer a factory or a dissident group after the style of a mafia cartel. Continue reading
Ivan Garcia, 11 July 2015 — On a leaden afternoon in 1960 that portended rain, René, 79 years old, recalls how a half-dozen militia members encased in wide uniforms and bearing Belgian weapons appeared at his uncle’s house in the peaceful neighborhood of La Víbora to certify the confiscation of his properties.
“My family owned a milk processing plant that produced white and cream cheeses. They also owned an apartment house and a country residence. In two hours they were left with just the house in La Víbora and a car. Fidel Castro’s government confiscated the rest without paying a cent. Within six months they flew to Miami. Of course, I would view it well if the Cuban state were to compensate us for that arbitrariness. But I doubt it. Those people (the regime) have never liked to pay debts,” says René, who still lives with his children and grandchildren in the big house that had belonged to his relatives. Continue reading