Women in Cuba Can’t Take it Any More / Iván García

Photo: Taken from the report The inequities and female poverty in Cuba, published in IPS on December 16, 2016.

Ivan Garcia, 8 December 2017 — While the group of young people from a high school in La Víbora, south of Havana, were in a physical education class on a dirt track adjacent to the school, Andrés, 40, with a cardboard box on his legs, masturbated frantically sitting on the cement floor of the basketball court.

His relatives call him ’Andriaco the blanket’. He usually masturbates in cinemas and sports fields, using a large cardboard container that has an opening in the front to put his hand in and not attract attention. continue reading

Andrés is not demented or mentally retarded. Nor is he an exhibitionist like Manuel, a mulatto who likes to masturbate early in the morning or when night falls, in public, always showing his member. One afternoon in November, Manuel explained to Martí Noticias his way of operating.

“I have fixed places, like the medical school in El Cerro, in the back of the Covadonga, because the students don’t create problems. And some places where the chicks pass that are ’assimilators’.” In the slang of masturbators, shooters, jack-offs or jerk-offs, ’assimilators’ or ’comelonas’ are women who watch them while they masturbate and don’t shout at them or offend them.

Manuel has a wife and is the father of two children. “Every time I get an internal itch, I take out my dick and jack off in front of some girl. If they insult me, I get even more excited. There is an army of wankers throughout the island. If the police pick you up, they’ll give you a fine of 60 pesos. If you are a recidivist or you ’shoot’ in front of minors, they punish you with one year in prison on a farm. But I’ve never been imprisoned for masturbating on the street.”

Sheila, a psychologist, believes that the laws in Cuba are quite permissive with public masturbators and jamoneros or exhibitionists. “Likewise with sexual harassment and physical and verbal abuse of women. It is a tremendously macho society. Most street masturbators do not have any mental disorder. They need medical treatment, but their IQ is usually above average.”

The Havana psychologist believes that public masturbation and sexual harassment are crimes, because they invade the privacy of a woman without her consent. “And of course the abuse. In Cuba, the sanctions for physical aggressions against women are very soft. The laws condemn a government opponent or someone who kills a cow with a sentence of twenty years, however a man hits his wife or girlfriend, sometimes with injuries, and if they punish him, he serves only one year in jail. Even some policemen do not see it as a crime, but a matter between husband and wife. We Cubans should initiate a public awareness campaign to denounce sexual harassment and gender violence, among other phenomena that affect us.”

Recently, a crusade against sexual harassment began in the United States. The #MeToo Movement establishes a new threshold against the abuse of male power. More than thirty top executives and celebrities have fallen in the last two months, from artists like Kevin Spacey to the doctor for the women’s Olympic gymnastics team.

But in Cuba, masturbation on public streets, which is a form of sexual harassment, and beating wives and children is not an issue that the official media regularly address or encourage debate about among the population.

Adriana, a former basketball player, narrates personal experiences. “Already, as a young woman, it was common that the little girl that the coach had his eye on, he went to bed with her in exchange for selecting her for a provincial or national team. Touching your buttocks, breasts, undressing you with his eyes or masturbating in front of you, was so common that I came to think it was normal. In sports schools and in others with scholarship students, sexual harassment escalates to groping against your will. As far as I know, those behaviors are not reported and those affected are afraid to denounce it.”

Leyanis, 24, recently graduated in telecommunications engineering, says that “the things that women suffer in Cuba have become normal. We have to arm ourselves with a shield if we want to get ahead. We are legally forsaken. From the moment I get up I have to endure the invasion of other people,” and she details:

“At five in the morning, when I’m ironing my work uniform in my living room, a guy stands in the window and starts masturbating. Similarly, on the way to work, there’s another batch of pajusos. And at work, from your boss to your colleagues, they make rude innuendo or touch you, pretending that it was unintentional. And when you’re riding a bus, don’t even talk about it: you get hit with the whole package shamelessly. It is an intolerable, demeaning epidemic.”

Nidia, architect, believes, “that the harassment in Cuba is so normal that in a video that I saw, where several generals appear, one of them spanks a uniformed girl who passes by his side. If that is done by those who govern the country, what can be expected from the rest of the Cubans? Impunity is almost absolute.”

“If there is touching and harassment in military life, the situation is unbearable in more liberal sectors, such as the artistic, which has always had a bad reputation. Or in workplaces that have rooms and beds, such as hospitals and hotels where you work 24 hours,” says a retired food service employee who had to endure all kinds of pressure from her superiors to have sex during working hours.

Silvia, a pharmacist, thinks that “the authorities should do something, because at any moment you go out into the street and a man might club you and take you home, like in the Stone Age. When I’m on duty in the early morning at the pharmacy, they harass me on the phone, telling me all kinds of filth or they stop at the door, jacking off. I’ve called the police and they never come, they say they’re busy with more important issues.”

Although the state press has more or less addressed the issue of street masturbation and mistreatment of women, the issue of harassment remains taboo. “We have to organize and create a movement like in the United States and publicly denounce all that we are suffering,” says Adriana, the former basketball player harassed in her youth.

But it so happens that in Cuba, collective denunciations, however spontaneous and apolitical they may be, are always suspicious for a State that oversees and controls society with an iron fist. Creating a movement against sexual harassment, passing more severe laws that curb physical and psychological violence against females of any age and trying to eliminate or reduce public masturbation, is not among the priorities of the olive-green autocracy.

In a macho and predominantly masculine society, where its leaders see sexual harassment as fun, having a lover or girlfriends is a tradition, giving your partner a slap and spreading songs with vulgar and offensive texts towards women is normal, and leaves the Cuban women in a position of absolute helplessness.

As if it weren’t enough to have to endure daily rudeness, discrimination and violence, most of the women on the island come home from work to cook, clean, wash, iron and care for their children, while the husband watches television.

This is one of the ’achievements’ that the revolution has left us.

Fifteenth Birthday Parties, Also for Boys / Iván García

Photo taken from the Internet

Ivan Garcia, 13 November 2017 — In the studio there are three light reflectors that give off an unbearable heat. In the background there is a wall of mirrors and two white umbrellas hanging from the ceiling.

Joan, a professional photographer, considers himself a freelancer. He also sells audiovisual packages to foreign press agencies based in Havana, planning a photographic exhibition with artistic nudes.

“But what earns the most money are the photo sessions for fifteenth birthday parties, both for females and males. Packages of photos, montages and videos range between 120 and 850 convertible pesos (CUC), and some are even more expensive. From the professional point of view it’s a cash cow, as long as you are up to date with the latest youth trends in Cuba and have a stock of sophisticated tools and applications. It’s true that art is scarce and kitsch is abundant, but you earn more money than with graphic journalism or artistic photography,” says Joan. continue reading

The fifteenth birthday parties on the island support a fat and efficient chain of businesses that enjoy generous profits. Hairdressers, barbershops, photographers, audiovisuals, cakes, buffet tables, sale or rental of costumes, choreographers, DJs, comedians and well-known television presenters usually participate in the celebrations for turning 15.

Moraima says that “on my daughter’s fifteenth I spent about 6 thousand chavitos (CUCs). A week in a hotel in Varadero for five people cost 1,500 CUC. On clothes for the girl we spent 450 CUC, 750 CUC on photos and videos, 200 CUC on hairdressing and almost 3 thousand CUC on the birthday, between the cake, refreshments, drinks, rent of the room in a hotel, presenter for the party , choreographer, DJ and a comic. The next day I did not even have a peso for a cup of coffee.”

But now Moraima’s son has gottenit into his head to also celebrate his 15th birthday.” He says that’s fashionable. His father and I put our hands on our heads, but the truth is that the boy gets good grades at school and deserves it,” the mother confesses.

José Manuel, father of two children who, in 2017, arrived at the ages of 15 (the boy) and 16 (the girl), found a solution that allowed him to lower costs. “We had a single celebration, like greased lightening. We rented two rooms in a four-star hotel in Cancun for eight nights for four people. Expenses were exceeded more than planned, around 10 thousand chavitos, but it was worth it. ”

The fifteenth birthday parties are a long-standing tradition in Cuba and other countries of the Caribbean and Latin America. The custom does not distinguish among races or social status. All Cuban families yearn to celebrate it in the best way possible; possible according to their economic possibilities. During Soviet Cuba, when one’s salary had a real purchasing power, it was less complicated to organize them, although the wealthiest could always go overboard and break the bank.

Zoila, 50, remembers: “My parents were workers in a textile factory. In 1982, when I turned 15, each one earned a salary of 200 pesos. However, with the five boxes of beer available on the ration book for fifteenth birthday parties and weddings, plus a little money saved, four cakes were bought, abundant food and drink was served, and several couples danced a rueda de casino. All that partying did not exceed a thousand pesos. Now, with the custom designed cake and the paraphernalia that usually accompanies a quinceañera, you’re out a thousand or two thousand chavitos. On my two daughters’ fifteenths, without great luxuries, I spent 4 thousand CUC.”

In Cuba, parties were never organized for boys when they turned 15 years old. But for four or five years it has become common. Although many fathers and mothers do not look on it kindly.

“The quinceañeras are a feminine tradition. My sons say that I am a Cro-Magnon, an antiquated one. But I’m against that ‘metrosexual’ fashion, men who shave their legs, chest and eyebrows, fix their nails and wear pink clothes. With this discourse that we all have the same rights, a part of the men have gone the gay route,” says Sergio, father of five children.

In a survey of 18 adolescents, females and males between 12 and 14 years old and from different social strata, 16 of them said that if their parents could afford it, they would celebrate their 15th birthday in some way, regardless of sex.

“It’s a cool thing and it’s fashionable. In 2018 I am going to be 15 and my parents are going to celebrate. I intend to make a digital magazine dressed in football outfits and audiovisual montages as if I were playing football with Messi and Neymar,” says Reinier, a ninth-grade student who is now 14.

Quite a few of the fifteenth birthday celebrations Cuba can be financed thanks to Cubans residing in the United States. “My uncle plans to come. He sent me name brand clothes and shoes, a phone and money. He told me by text that he is going to rent a week in an all-inclusive hotel in Cayo Santamaría,” says Lisván, a highschool freshman who will turn 15 in November.

So it is that many of the traditional holidays, now for the two sexes, in many cases are planned between relatives on the Island and in Florida. And the expenses are shared on both shores. Or they are paid in full by a magnanimous relative from Miami.

Fidel Castro Everywhere / Iván García

Ivan Garcia, 27 November 2017 — In a dirty and unventilated state bar on Tenth of October Avenue, which sells for six pesos (0.35 cents), with their tankard of beer served, two speakers reproduce a recital by La Lupe.

At a table in the background, Joel, with his glassy eyes, leans his back against a wall where you can read the meaning, according to Fidel Castro, of the word revolution, engraved with a fine-tipped brush and without much art.

When you ask his impressions on the first anniversary of Fidel’s death, Joel, who drinks more for vice than pleasure, shows the typical silly smile of people one step away from drunkenness. continue reading

“You’ve got me between a rock and a hard place. I did not remember the first anniversary of the death of that face like a coconut. The television and radio are twenty-four hours with that obsession, but my job is to work hard. I don’t have time to shoot the shit. Let those who believe in him remember him. Brother, life does not stop no matter how big the person who died is,” says the man, as he empties the rest of the cheap beer that remains in his jar.

In Cuba, political advertising is everywhere. In the most unexpected places, phrases by Fidel Castro are read. It does not matter if it is an farmers market, a smelly low-key bar or on the Central Highway.

The promoters of the Castro faith work by piecework. They have filled with paintings, photos and praises to Castro every corner of the island. Not infrequently their crazy site has borders of black humor, cynicism or toxic delirium.

On one side of the old Prisión del Príncipe, where the Avenida de los Presidentes begins, in El Vedado, on murals and building facades there are Castro slogans. In the evenings, taking advantage of the lack of public lighting in that area, street exhibitionists masturbate to the step of any woman.

“It’s an epidemic. The shooters (masturbators) in Havana are making waves. Recently a guy was ’shooting’ from atop a tree, next to a sign with Fidel’s phrase ’Cubans must learn to shoot, and shoot well. What a coincidence,” says Camila, a dentist.

And it is Fidel Castro, like José Martí, that the propaganda of the communist party uses it for any facet of life. Be it a boxing match, a hurricane symposium or a poultry forum.

“The soundtrack about the man is tremendous. In between the innings of a ballgame, they slip a stretch of one of his speeches or images of him playing basketball or baseball. Advertising in the capitalist countries is abusive, but this day for the first anniversary of Fidel’s death in the media, all the time and at any time, it is simply harassing. Even those people who appreciated it come to reject it,” says Hernán, a retiree.

Carlos, a sociologist, believes that “political advertising must be handled with care, so that it does not have the opposite effect. It has happened with Martí: due to the excessive use of him, a considerable part of the new generations reject him. Fidel was a watershed, he has many local admirers, but also many detractors, although not openly expressed. They believe he is to blame for the current national disaster. With this laudatory campaign, where everything is praise and his flaws are not outlined, trying to sell his as a perfect guy, what they provoke is exhaustion.”

State media, lacking in creativity, have labeled the former commander in chief as a major athlete, rancher and farmer-in-chief and highlighted his wisdom with regards to the art of war.

If there is something overflowing in Cuban bookstores, it is texts about Fidel Castro. Nidia, an employee of a bookstore in Old Havana, says “Cubans barely buy Fidel’s books. The foreigners, a little. They don’t sell much.”

A year after the disappearance of the former top leader, people have continued on their own. The priority is the same: bring food to the table and earn enough money to repair their precarious houses.

The citizens consider that the state’s “information deployment” on the life and work of the autocrat does not bring them any benefit. “If every 25th of November they gave on the ration book a pound of beef per person or a basket of food, perhaps they would remember him more intensely. But life here stays the same. Without money, the markets are fleecing us and eating well is a luxury,” says Ángel, a worker, in line at the bakery.

The main concern of Havana residents like Joel, a practiced drinker, is that “on these days of commemoration they prohibit the sale of rum or beer. The best way to escape from problems, which in this country are a lot, is to go get drunk.”

Twelve months after the funeral of Fidel Castro, Cuba is still stuck in its stationary economic crisis and planning the future, more than boldness, it is a bad omen. Within three months, Raúl, the other Castro, has said that he is retiring from power. But apathy on the island is so profound that even this issue does not interest the population.

The goal of the ordinary Cuban is to make it to the next day. You live hour by hour. Short term. The commemorations and political campaigns are just a background music.

The Crisis in Zimbabwe is Barely Mentioned in the Cuban Media / Iván García

Fidel Castro receives Robert Mugabe in the Havana airport, June 8, 1992. Taken from CNN.

Iván García, 20 November 2017 — While Robert Gabriel Mugabe, the oldest dictator in the world at age 93, was giving a televised statement from Harare, surrounded by soldiers and elegantly-dressed officials, many miles away from Zimbabwe, Edna, a history professor at a pre-university, was washing clothes in Havana, in an anachronistic Aurika from the Soviet epoch.

When I ask Edna her opinion on the political crisis in Zimbabwe, she shakes her head and tries to find words that don’t sound trite. “If you ask my kids, I’m sure they don’t know who Robert Mugabe is and they wouldn’t be able to find Zimbabwe on the map. People here are disconnected, although I don’t include myself in this group, since I try to keep up with what’s happening in Cuba and the world,” says Edna, and she adds: continue reading

“I went on internationalist missions twice in Africa, once in Angola and another in South Africa. And I can tell you that those freedom fighters, like José Eduardo dos Santos in Angola, Teodoro Obiang in Equatorial Guinea, Mengistu Haile Mariam in Ethiopia and Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, ended up being dictators. The honorable exception was Nelson Mandela. Mugabe was in power for 37 years, olympically violating human rights and committing fraud in fake elections. Our press treats him like a king, because in addition to being an ally who always votes in favor of Cuba in international forums, our rulers are a reflection of him. Joaquín Sabina, my favorite singer, says in an interview that the Cuban revolution and the Venezuelan revolutions aren’t aging well. The same is true of the African independence movement, in which Fidel Castro played a big part; the same thing happened.”

To find someone on the streets of Havana who will seriously comment about a foreign event is hard. Most reject a question with a shake of their heads or muddle through with a mechanical response.

But an independent journalist like Juan González Febles always has a response: “It’s logical that the Regime doesn’t offer information. There’s a kind of club of dictators who indulge each other. With the Argentina dictatorship, Fidel Castro did business with the soldiers and offered them aid during the war in the Malvinas. Beginning with Honecker, passing through Ceausescu and ending with Mugabe, the Cuban Regime decorated the whole lot of them with the Order of José Martí. Right now a high-level delegation from North Korea is in Cuba. Almost no other country would permit an official from that rogue state to visit. The media silence comes from a debt of gratitude that the Cuban dictatorship has with the rest of the totalitarian governments in the world.

The State media have barely mentioned the grave political crisis in Zimbabwe that will mark the end of the Mugabe era.

In spite of the slow connection, browsing on the Internet I found that Prensa Latina published an article, reproduced Sunday, November 19 by Cubadebate, with the headline, “President Mugabe deposed as the political leader in Zimbabwe.” The same story was also released in the online editions of Bohemia and Tiempo 21 from Las Tunas. Previously, two “decaffeinated” commentaries were published: one on Thursday, November 16 in Granma (“Zimbabwe, the headline of the week”) and the other on Friday the 17th in Juventud Rebelde (“Discussion of the situation in Zimbabwe”).

However, Telesur, a channel funded with the petrodollars of Hugo Chávez, on Sunday the 19th transmitted the televised conference of Mugabe surrounded by soldiers and officials.

In Cuba, all news media, national or provincial, are directed by the ideological department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. And they are always cautious and careful about condemning or criticizing communist governments, governments with leftist tendencies or any that are economic allies.

Nothing has been published on the Island about the corruption in China of the children of high officials and their spectacular lifestyles, and the press is silent about the relatives of Xi Jinping who are implicated in the Panama Papers.

The monarchist tyranny of North Korea is treated with the utmost respect. And you’ll never see the official analysts, experts on the U.S. or the European Union political systems, write an article condemning the testing of nuclear missiles by the Hermit Kingdom Kim family.

However, there’s a surplus of space and ink for counting killings in the U.S. or pointing out statistics on capitalist poverty. But about Zimbabwe, hardly anything is known. Cubans don’t know about the terrible economic situation, with 90 percent of its citizens unemployed, or that the average life span isn’t more than 40 years.

With Africa, the information blackout is redoubled. The role of the Castro autocracy in the struggles for emancipation on that continent is known. Fidel Castro maintained a special friendship with Robert Mugabe. In August 1986, Castro was in Zimbabwe to participate in the Eighth Summit of Nonaligned Countries, which was celebrated in Harare, the capital. For his part, Robert Mugabe made several visits to Cuba, on the following dates: September 1983; 1986 when he was decorated with the Order of José Martí; June of 1992; July of 2002; September of 2003, and September of 2005, according to photos found on Google. His last trip was in November 2016, in order to attend the funeral of his “brother, Fidel.”

Hence the scarce news on what is happening in Zimbabwe with the old friend of Castro the First. Nor do the Cuban media mention the enormous fortune accumulated by Isabel dos Santos in Angola, or the scandals of Teodorín Obiang, son of the intolerable dictator of Equatorial Guinea.

As for Latin America, we’ll never see a reproach against the regimes of Nicolás Maduro, Evo Morales or an analysis of the litigation against Lenin Moreno and Rafael Correa in Ecuador. The National press never qualified the FARC of Colombia as a terrorist organization. Nor did it publish one line on the detention for narcotrafficking of the nephews of Cilia Flores, Maduro’s wife.

The media in Cuba are an arm of the Regime. It uses them for the benefit of publicity. The ideology department of the Party isn’t stupid. They’re not going to shoot themselves in the foot with the monster that they themselves created.

For Cuban readers, Zimbabwe is a socialist democracy and Robert Mugabe is a hero of African independence. And his wife, Grace, repudiated in her country for her love of luxury and her delusions of grandeur, if we give credit to the commentary published in Juventud Rebelde, is an innocent woman who was a child when the war of liberation took place.

If someone wants to be informed objectively and know other points of view, then he must pay one convertible peso, two day’s minimum salary, to navigate on the Internet for one hour. That’s the only way.

Translated by Regina Anavy

Cuba Belongs to All Cubans / Iván García

Taken from Cartas desde Cuba

Ivan Garcia, 7 November 2017 — A fat man with a tenor voice and a bag hanging across his chest, as he passes through the inner streets of the Lawton neighborhood, announcing that he buys empty perfume jars and plastic soft drink bottles.

Two santiagueros fleeing poverty and lack of opportunities in their province, announce that they repair mattresses. And a lady shouts from her balcony to a neighbor that ground meat just arrived at the butcher’s shop.

Before noon, Lawton, in the south of Havana, is a combination of soot, broken streets, people selling anything, while reggaeton blasts in the background. Small gatherings assemble on the corners or anywhere. continue reading

In the doorway of a warehouse five people talk about the performance of Yuli Gurriel and Yasiel Puig in the World Series. Then, they discuss the new travel and immigration measures announced in Washington by Cuba’s grizzly Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla that will begin to be implemented on 1 January 2018.

It is rare that in Cuba a family does not have relatives on the other side of the pond. Mildred, a mother of three children with brothers living in Miami, thinks about the new migratory reforms: “Personally, these changes do not benefit me, because my brothers were doctors and when they were on a mission in Venezuela, they abandoned their posts. They have to comply with a punishment of eight years during which they cannot enter Cuba. The government should understand that Cuba belongs to all Cubans and not only to those that suit them.”

Julio is the father of a young baseball talent who jumped the fence in pursuit of his dream of playing in the big leagues and who now earns a seven figure salary and helps his family out of perpetual poverty. Julio thinks along the same lines.

“With the players who leave the team during international events, it’s the same. They can not enter Cuba until the government pleases. Now they make concessions to counteract the harsh economic situation of the country. Trump is a half crazy guy and nothing can be expected from him. Venezuela can no longer send the same amount of oil and the state urgently needs the dollars from those it once called worms,” says Julio.

When you talk to ordinary citizens, the general opinion is that the government has to completely tear down the wall that has been dividing Cubans for so long.

“Cuba needs them more, than it does us. The current system is drifting. We must renew the public infrastructure and rebuild many things. We need capital, people prepared in the latest in science, technology, productive management, business and banking. The most talented in different spheres of knowledge, sports, art and culture flew from the green caiman. What’s left is small change, the bottom of the closet. We are an aging nation,” says Onelio, an economist.

But Castro’s autocracy continues with its Cold War command strategy and the mentality of the Cold War. It is their natural state. Selling themselves as a victim harassed by the United States government.

And contradictorily, the solution is to negotiate with the supposed enemy. The regime has been engaged in a battle, sometimes real, almost always exaggerated, with the different administrations in the White House, from 1959 to the present.

In his eagerness to make a mark for himself in the international scene, at the stroke of exporting guerrilla wars, armies of white coats and legions of soldiers to the African continent, Fidel Castro hijacked the aspirations of the Cuban people.

The diaspora and the people who survive in Cuba were, and are, hostages of typical policies of imperial nations and centers of world power, not of a small and backward country.

Twenty-six years have passed since the fall of communism in the USSR and even the Caribbean dictatorship does not decide to take the only foreseeable and reasonable step: to compromise with Cubans inside and outside the country.

It is the only way out in view of the national conflict. All that’s needed is a public apology and sitting down to negotiate. But the dialogue must be with everyone, not only with those who accept their ideology.

We must leave behind the old grudges. The future of Cuba involves engaging the entire diaspora (and not only those living in the United States) and Cubans on the island in the reconstruction of a modern, tolerant and functional society.

Of course, the regime will have to make concessions. Freedom of expression, democracy and free elections. The black list of compatriots, who by phallic or despotic decree, cannot travel to their homeland, should be annulled.

Carlos Alberto Montaner has every right in the world to present his books in Havana or to hold a conference in Guanabacoa. As long as they pay fair wages, not the poverty wages they give to Haitian sugarcane growers in La Romana, Dominican Republic, the Fanjul brothers could build sugar mills in the land where they were born.

Diario de Las Américas and El Nuevo Herald should have the option of placing correspondents in Havana: a good part of their readers are Cubans settled in Florida.

It is enough to milk the emigrants making them pay for their Cuban passports and to renew them at a golden price. No Cuban should have to ask permission to enter his home.

I did not understand the cheers and applause of a sector of exile when Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez launched the new travel and immigration proposal. The government is not doing anyone any favors. It is an internationally accepted right that citizens of a country can travel and return to the place where they were born, whenever they wish.

There is no better example of nationalism and sovereignty than to involve each and every  Cuban in the future of their country. We can still do this.

The Private Sector, the Most Powerful in Cuba / Iván García

Private snack bar. Taken from On Cuba Magazine.

Ivan Garcia, 17 November 2017 — While several business owners from the island connected to the internet in the lobby of the EB Miami hotel a stone’s throw from the international airport, and others drank beer at nine dollars at the bar, a Cuban dissident lawyer who spent more than a decade in Puerto Rico and a former political prisoner of Fidel Castro’s regime were trying to understand the new social dynamic that exists in Cuba.

The diverse group of participants in the Cuba Internet Freedom event, organized by the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) that took place over three days at the Miami Ad School in the picturesque Wynwood neighborhood, included software and app developers, independent economic analysts, owners of small food service businesses and the gay director of a digital magazine for Cuban gamers. continue reading

Of course there were also political activists such as Eliecer Ávila, Rosa Maria Payá, Rolando Rodríguez Lobaina and Ailer González, along with audiovisual producers and independent journalists who are openly anti-Castro. But it was the group of Cuban entrepreneurs, young people very well prepared, unprejudiced and with an approach focused more on economics than politics, who generated mixed feelings not only among a segment of the historical exile that suffered severe repression first hand — shootings of relatives or friends and many years in prison — but also among some of today’s opponents from the island, convinced that the formula to overthrow the regime of the Castro brothers is street marches or writing the word “Plebiscite” on the ballots for the election of delegates to the People’s Power Assemblies.

Passionate debates, sometimes risqué, or with the usual accusations of calling any person who criticizes the opposition or thinks differently an agent of State Security, rather than promoting dialogue, raised the wall of intransigence. Yaima Pardo, a talented independent documentary maker left a bad taste in the mouths of the exile sector that labeled him as ‘apolitical’ although it did not accuse him to his face of being part of the olive-green autocracy.

“The mere fact of coming and participating in forums considered counterrevolutionary by the government is an important step. We do not have to think like the dissidence. I recognize the pain of a segment of exile, but those were other times. My goal is to live in a society where freedom of expression is not a crime. We all want the same thing, a better homeland, but they are always attacking those of us with different opinions,” said the documentary maker.

Yodalys Sánchez, co-owner with her uncle of the paladar (private restaurant) Doña Carmela, next to the San Carlos fortress of La Cabaña, prefers to talk about how complex it is to succeed in business matters in Cuba.

“I have thirty workers and our sales are going very well. We have grown based on creativity despite the harassment of state institutions. In Cuba everything is difficult: from getting the food and condiments, to preparing the daily menu, to having to pay unsustainable taxes. Of course I am interested in a better future for my country, but what I do not like is that there are Cubans both from Miami and from the island, who believe that to demonstrate something, we have to make public statements against the government. That’s not my job,” Yodalys said.

Probably the frustration of the historical exile, compatriots who arrived in Miami with a suitcase and an empty wallet who thought, after having their properties or businesses confiscated, that their time in exile would be brief, find their discernment clouded. Emotion can overcome good sense. But they did not emigrate because of economic problems. They were practically ordered to leave their homeland, in many cases after having been political prisoners and having their lives in danger.

But Cuba today differs a lot from that of the first years of the Castro revolution. Yes, it is true, it is still governed by a regime that curtails the essential rights of any modern democracy. But the fall of Soviet communism, combined with international pressure from Western countries, an increase in internal dissidence and the existence of an incipient free press, has forced them to yield in the economic arena.

It is still too little. There are too many controls and restrictions on small private businesses making a lot of money, something aberrant: like asking the fourth batter to just tap the ball.

Even in the political terrain there is a retreat. They beat the Ladies in White and barricade opponents of the UNPACU in the eastern region or illegally prohibit dissidents from running as candidates for district delegates, but the firing squads have been replaced by brief arrests and ordinary people are losing their fear and, even in the open street, freely criticize the state of affairs in Cuba.

In this complex panorama, more than two hundred Cuban journalists without gags write for media and websites based in Florida, Madrid or Havana. And on the island there are so many dissident groups and independent initiatives of all kinds that no one can keep track of them all. Twenty years ago, none of that was possible without going to prison.

In a dictatorship, its weakness or retreat is measured by those small victories achieved in the midst of intense repression. And yes, today Castroism is more fragile than two decades ago. It has less social control and thanks to the internet it can no longer control information at its own whim. Everywhere, Caribbean totalitarianism is taking on water.

In my opinion, it is not the dissidence that is going to lead the regime to come to an agreement with its people and open the gates. It will be private entrepreneurs and their demands which will lead to the desired change.

It is hard to believe that within the ranks of the opposition and exile, who always brandished the weapon of private enterprise, they now judge with reservations the most thriving sector. Along with the invasive marabú weed, it is one of the few things that thrives on the Island.

Travel and Immigration Reforms Will Bring More Hard Currency to Cuba / Iván García

Photo taken from Martí Noticias

Ivan Garcia, 2 November 2017 — Twice a week, Mayté, a bank employee, usually talks with and sees her daughter through an internet app that she uses from a park in western Havana. The travel and immigration rules that the Cuba authorities will begin to apply as of 1 January 2018, still won’t allow professionals like Mayté’s daughter, who abandoned her posting in a foreign countries, to visit Cuba.

“The new measures don’t repeal the rules that prevent doctors and professionals who abandon their missions abroad to return before eight years have passed. Right now, everything is the same. They [the regime] have an urgent need to find money, so they are implementing these new travel and immigration reforms,” says Mayté, after talking with her daughter in Miami through the IMO app. continue reading

An immigration official, who requested anonymity, said that “there will be gradual changes in travel and immigration regulations, both for Cubans living in the country, and Cubans living abroad.”

Martí News wanted to know if future reforms would cancel the prohibition that prevents professionals, categorized as deserters, from traveling to Cuba before they have been away eight years, and when the extensive blacklist prohibiting opponents of the regime living abroad from visiting their homeland would be eliminated.

“The policy that after two years certain rights are lost will change in the short term,” says the official, referring to the current policy that requires Cubans who remain out of the country for more than 24 months to get special permission to return.

“Also the prohibition of professionals who defected from different missions,” he adds, “and a provision that allows doctors who once decided to leave, to return to the country is in force. But the issue of belligerent Cubans who seek to change our political system is different. That remains a matter of national security. Although for humanitarian situations they have authorized their entry into the country. The State is interested in maintaining a fluid relationship with its emigrants. And all possible openings will be made in that sense,” the official explained.

“Then in the near future will Cuban emigrants be able to hold public jobs?” I ask him.

“Right now I don’t know. But I repeat, the government wants better relations with the emigrants, especially with anyone who is non-confrontational,” he responds.

Eduardo, an economist, says that the new measures “are aimed at capturing as much fresh currency as possible. In the middle of the current economic recession, which has all the signs of becoming a deep crisis due to the 40 percent decrease in oil imports from Venezuela, and with Russia and China apparently unwilling to get involved in the unproductive local economy, as happened in past decades, there is no doubt that the government needs to open new ways to raise more dollars and euros. Family remittances, retail trade in convertible pesos and tourism for Cubans settled in other countries, is a business that moves millions. With these travel measures, and others that could come, such as facilitating the creation of small and medium businesses run by Cubans living abroad, the economic situation could take a favorable turn. As long as they do it in an impartial, independent and reliable legal framework.”

Carlos, a sociologist, doubts that these travel and immigration regulations are the first of a later set of economic reforms focused on private entrepreneurs or stimulating future business with Cuban emigrés.

“I don’t believe it. Those provisions are to improve the flow of liquidity in the state coffers. Until proven otherwise, the regime has always watched with concern the authorization of busineses by Cubans who, among other reasons, left because they disagreed with the socialist system. The current Investment Law does not prohibit Cubans living in other nations from doing business in Cuba, but in practice the state does not open the door for them. In times of uncertainty, with a worsening economic crisis and the backtracking in relations with the United States, the rapprochement with the exile would help to move the country forward. But there is a caste of conservatives within the government who do not approve of this approach. Look at the handbrake they put on people working for themselves. The objective of these travel and immigration reforms is purely financial,” the sociologist explains.

Luisa, the mother of a Havana baseball player who plays in the minor leagues in the United States, believes that “the government should repeal all the laws that prevent Cuban players, doctors and other professionals who stayed during a mission or sporting event from traveling back to Cuba. Bad, good or regular, they are Cuban and they have families here. If they could come freely, and not wait for eight years to pass, if they could open businesses and in the case of the players, compete for the national team, that would contribute to maintaining better relations with an emigration has been vilified. They have branded those who left as scum, traitors, worms.”

Yasmany, the father of two children living in Miami, says that with the recently announced measures “the government is not doing any favors to the Cuban emigrants. It is a right that is contemplated in international laws. If they approve it now, it’s simply because they need money.”

Gloria, a lawyer, states that “it is a legal aberration that Cubans have to get a special stamp on their passport in order to travel to their own country. All that is absurd. The convenient thing would be that they can come and go without legal obstacles on the part of the state. Also that they can establish businesses in their homeland, occupy political positions or live one season abroad and another on the island. In recent years, the government has made progress in the area of travel and immigration, but it is opening spaces little by little.”

Many people consulted agree that, in the same way that Havana is the capital of all Cubans, Cuba is the home of all Cubans, wherever they live and however they think. And no one should have the right to regulate their freedom to travel or to settle in their native city when they can or want to.

But the regime has another point of view. That is why it governs the island as if it were its property.

Translated by Jim

How Cubans Remember the Missile Crisis / Iván García

Headline in a newspaper of the time: End of the Crisis

Ivan Garcia, 30 October 2017 — The leaden sky presaging rain did not stop Hector, 79, from roasting chicken breasts and a snapper over charcoal. In his house in Víbora Park in the Arroyo Naranjo neighborhood in the south of Havana, the atmosphere was festive. His brother Humberto, who has lived in Canada for 20 years, was visiting Cuba with his children and grandchildren.

On the patio, the adults shared beers and nostalgia, while they listened to the Spanish group Nino Bravo on the stereo. In the living room the youngest members of the family were dancing and singing Despacito, by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee. continue reading

It was just after one o’clock on the afternoon of Sunday, October 22nd. At that hour, Humberto turned on a small battery radio and started listening to the news. The announcer recalled that 55 years ago, John F. Kennedy addressed a 17-minute televised message to the American people and publicly announced that a naval blockade would be established against Cuba.

Humberto experienced those two weeks of uncertainty on the Island. After a brief silence, he recounts his personal experience. “I was 24 years old and I had just graduated in civil engineering. Like most Cubans, I supported Fidel Castro. I enrolled voluntarily in the militias. I passed a quick course on antiaircraft artillery and they sent a group of us to an area of Pinar del Río that today belongs to the municipality of San Luis. Later I would find out that very close to our unit they had deployed Soviet nuclear missiles,” recalls Humberto and adds:

“In Cuba we did not have the slightest idea what a nuclear conflict was. We were uninformed, there were no shelters or the necessary supplies. There was no awareness of what an atomic war represented. In a night watch, on October 22, 1962, the battalion chief told us about Kennedy’s speech and Khrushchev’s decision not to stop the ships traveling to Cuba. ‘War is a matter of days away,’ the boss told us. Among the troops it was thought that it would be a kind of safari to hunt Yankees. Morale was sky high after the Bay of Pigs. Someone said: ‘Comrades, this conflict is different. There will be no winners or losers, we are all going to die.’ That was when I realized the seriousness of the situation.”

The former political prisoner and journalist Pedro Corzo, now living in Miami, in 1962 was already an opponent of Fidel Castro’s communist regime.

“I lived in San Diego del Valle, a town in the old province of Las Villas. I had not been imprisoned yet, but there is ample evidence that the dictatorship planted dynamite around the entire perimeter of the Model Prison and other prisons where the political prisoners were, and as events unfolded, they were ready to blow them up. In the village there was a strong movement of Russian troops and weapons. At that time, opponents never thought that it was nuclear missiles. When the armaments passed through San Diego del Valle, the army told us to go inside, close the windows and not look out.”

In October of 1962, Tania Quintero was about to turn 20 years old. “What I remember most about those days is that ordinary Cubans did not know what was happening and mocked the Soviets, ‘Russians’ became a disparaging term. I think that was when they started calling them ‘bolos’ — bowling pins — because they were so crude,” says the current independent journalist, who since November 2003 has lived in Switzerland as a political refugee.

According to Tania, “The feelings of the Cuban leaders were adopted by the population. The people didn’t want the Americans to get a foot in the door and wanted them to let the Soviets install the rockets on the island. You’d hear people say, ’Why did you bring [the weapons] then? They are assholes if they allow them to send them back.’ It seemed like they were talking about conventional weapons and not missiles. They called Khrushchev ‘Nikita Nipone’ (someone who neither removes the rockets or leaves them in place.) That’s how simple and superficial things were to ordinary people. The chill came later, when we knew what was at stake, in Cuba and in the world. Fidel Castro never spoke clearly to the people and told us that we were on the verge of a holocaust.

“We didn’t know and didn’t see and so we weren’t terrified, despite the huge military mobilization that was visible all over the Havana and especially along the Malecon, with the soldiers behind sandbags and the ‘four-mouths’ (anti-aircraft batteries) ready to shoot if ‘a little enemy plane’ tried to get close.”

Alberto, a retired former military officer, never thought that Cuba would be wiped off the map in the event of a nuclear conflict with the United States. “The perception that I had and that was shared by the vast majority of the population, was of the Cuban military dominance. We believed that the USSR’s armament was superior and that the Soviets would have a secret weapon that would prevent a Yankee attack. We did not know that the correlation of forces in nuclear missiles was one to eight in favor of the Americans. Neither television, radio nor the ICAIC news reported on the dangerous situation we were in. Despite the fact that only 17 years had passed since the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with thousands of deaths and irreversible damages to the survivors. In Cuba, I believe that by Fidel’s direction, people were not told about the harmful effects of a nuclear mushroom cloud. The only thing that Fidel cared about was going down in history. We were manipulated, we were naive. In the same situation the North Koreans are in today. ”

Magdalena, a housewife, was born in December 1962 and says that her parents had told her about the October Crisis. “But I came to know that we were on the verge of a third world war, when in 2001 I saw the film Thirteen Days, starring Kevin Costner. It was hard for me to believe that what was narrated on the screen really happened and I realized that in 1962 my parents lacked information and did not know the magnitude of the situation created between Cuba, the United States and the Soviet Union. Luckily, the ‘bolos’ took their rockets out of the country. ”

After the fall of the Soviet empire, some secret archives were opened to the public, among them the letters exchanged by Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev. In one of the missives the Caribbean autocrat urges the president of the Soviet Union to launch the first strike. But the official media hide and barely analyze that epistolary exchange that reveals the irresponsibility of Fidel Castro and puts into question his gift as a statesman.

Fifty-five years after the Missile Crisis, many young Cubans are unaware of the real context of the events and the reckless spirit of their rulers, who summoned the people to immolate themselves.

Dayán, a third year high school student, in a mechanical tone, explains what he knows about that stage, according to what he learned in class: “After the Bay of Pigs, there were plans by the United States and the CIA to invade Cuba. That is why the USSR decided to place nuclear weapons in our territory, as a deterrent force. The Revolutionary Government did not agree. What they wanted was a commitment from the Soviets, that in case of aggression against Cuba it would be considered an aggression against the USSR. When Khrushchev decided to withdraw the missiles, what bothered Fidel most was that the Russians did not use him to negotiate a better solution. In other words, in return, withdraw the rockets, close the Guantanamo Naval Base and confirm the commitment of the United States not to invade Cuba.”

The official story about the Missile Crisis only relates the part that reflects well on the regime. It is silent about the rest.  Or tries to forget it.

What Remains of Che in Cuba / Iván García

Che T-Shirts in Santa Clara, Cuba, among other souvenirs. Taken from the blog Flora the Explorer.

Iván García, 9 October 2017 — Inside a Miami house devoid of grand architectural pretensions is a museum devoted to Brigade 2506. It commemorates the Cuban troops who came from the United States to confront the island’s militias and armed forces at the Bay of Pigs.

On several wooden panels hung on the walls are hundreds of photos of combatants in who fell in armed confrontation against the communist system imposed by the Castro brothers in those years. continue reading

With any luck, you might run into Felix Rodriguez, a former CIA agent who on October 8, 1967 captured the Argentinian guerilla Ernesto “Che” Guevara in Quebrada del Yuro, Bolivia.

Rodríguez, an elderly man who maintains a military posture despite physical ailments, has on countless occasions recounted an episode that demystifies the image of the illustrious hero that Cuba’s dictators wants to promote.

No one, not even his adversaries, question Che’s courage. But on that cold morning Guevara was forced to surrender after being ambushed by the Bolivian army.

The man who captured him reports that at the time Che was wounded, dressed in rags and in possession of an unused firearm. He was also very disappointed to have lost contact with Havana. Rodriguez remembers that he still had bullets in his pistol and that upon surrender he told his captors, “I am worth more alive than dead.” That is what Felix Rodriguez also believed.

But orders from superior officers were to execute him and to bury his body in a section of runway at the Vallegrande airport. This fact is overlooked in official accounts by the Castro government. They prefer to emphasize his heroism and guerrilla leadership.

Che Guevara’s life has become an imprecise myth. In Cuba his death is commemorated on October 8 though he actually died in a hail of gunfire a day later. John Lee Anderson, who has researched the life of Guevara, claims that the date of birth — June 14, 1928 — is false, that he was actually born a month earlier in the Argentinian city of Rosario.

After gaining immortality by winning the last, decisive battle of the Cuban revolution in Santa Clara, Guevara’s exploits in the field of combat were reduced to a string of failures. Because conditions in the Congo and Bolivia were not conducive to guerrilla warfare, skirmishes there turned into bloodbaths.

He did not distinguish himself in the field of economics either. After Guevara was appointed head of the national bank and Minister of Industry, he tried to graft his concept of the “New Man” onto the normal commercial, wage and financial rules by which a country is governed. The results were routinely bad.

His enemies accuse him of murder. While he was the commander of La Cabaña Fortress, he signed five hundred summary death sentences  A dedicated Communist, he always came off as a sullen, inflexible guy during his time in the Sierra Maestra, though one who was highly cultured. He personally recruited a number of subversive guerrillas.

His disregard for material possessions, his austerity and his personal integrity were probably his most striking personal qualities. And above all he risked his own neck to validate his “truths.”

Along with Fidel Castro, Guevara is today one of the patron saints of the revolution, which has now evolved into the perfect dictatorship. From childhood, Cubans are inculcated in the almost religious cult of Che.

“I remember in pre-school they told us stories about Che and his friendship with Camilo [Cienfuegos] and Fidel. Then you enter primary school and every morning they make you repeat the slogan ’Pioneers for communism, we will be like Che.’ This systematic indoctrination has left a mark on many people,” recalls Octavio, a civil engineer.

Ada, an educator, argues that the way the life and work of Che Guevara has been advertised and marketed is “simply atrocious.” She adds, ” They create conditioned reflexes that end up beatifying figures of the revolution. But when you reach adulthood, you recognize them as being the ones guilty for the national disaster. The same thing happens with Che. His mistakes as [economics] minister are minimized while the government’s advertising campaign emphasizes his abilities as a leader. Among young people in the western world he is a more iconic figure than Lenin or Mao and this has made him into a political marketing tool. People with no attachments to Communist ideology, such as Madonna or Mike Tyson, get tattooed with his likeness. His face is printed on T-shirts and luxury wristwatches. Major brands have used his image in publicity campaigns.”

In a mansion in Guanabo, a town to the east of the capital famous for its beach, lives one of Cuba’s best tattoo artists. I asked if Che’s image still sold well.

“It’s one of the top sellers, not just among foreigners but among Cubans as well,” he says. “What has always struck me is how many freaks, sex fiends, liberals and lovers of capitalism pick his image for a tattoo because Che was the antithesis of all that. You don’t often see officials from the Young Communist League or the Communist Party coming here for tattoos even though they are his most loyal followers. Perhaps it’s because of the pain, or the cost. Every tattoo costs from twenty-five to fifty convertible pesos,” says the Havana tattoo artist.

If anyone has profited off Che’s visage it is his family in Cuba. Under the pretext of promoting her father’s work, Aleida Guevara has created a foundation in his name whose trademark yields good economic dividends.

Let’s call him Ruben. He is a person intimately familiar with the Che Guevara Foundation’s scams. “The fat lady (Aleida) does not miss a thing,” he says. “Two years ago a left-wing South American publisher released a book on Che’s ideas and Aleida sued them, demanding payment. Che would have been very honest but his Cuban descendants are litigious. They like money more than sweet coconut.”

Daniel, a fan of Harley Davidson motorcycles, recalls, “At a time when there were very few people in Cuba who cared about Harleys, some of us formed a club which met on weekends. After going through a lot of red tape, we organized a Harley festival in Varadero which riders from other countries would attend. But when Che’s two sons, Camilo and Ernestico, got wind of it, they took over. They partnered with Gaviota, opened a bar in Varadero which charged in hard currency, rented out brand new Harleys and charged $2,500 to $3,000 to tour the entire island. They have falsified history; the motorcycle Che used on this tour through South America was a Norton 500.

Ernesto Guevara works better as a business venture than an ideology. At the time of his detention, he told his captor, Felix Rodriguez, that he was worth more alive than dead. He was not mistaken.

Cuba and Its Perennial Shortages / Iván García

Diario Las Américas

14ymedio biggerIvan Garcia, 17 October 2017 — Chest pains, migraines and inflamed feet alerted Oneida’s family that the 82-year-old with a long history of diabetes and cancer was not well.

Her children rushed her to the emergency room at Miguel Enriquez Hospital, in the Luyano neighborhood in south Havana, where their mother was admitted to intermediate intensive care.

The team of specialists who attended Oneida asked if the family had relatives or friends abroad who could buy medicines unavailable in the country, because after two months without the required treatments the lady was experiencing imbalances in her body. continue reading

“This time she was saved from death, but if she continues not taking the required medications, the story may be different,” said one of the doctors who attended my mother,” says Ernesto, Oneida’s son. “For four months now, three of the medicines the old woman takes are missing from pharmacies and hospital supplies. I have no relatives abroad. I’m working with the church people to try to get it. My mother, moreover, must follow a strict diet and because of the scarcity of food, it is very complicated. ”

Diario Las Américas asked Yanisbel, the administrator of a pharmacy in the municipality Diez de Octubre, the most populous in the capital, how many medicines are missing and whether it was known when the public health authorities think they might remedy the deficit.

“I run a main pharmacy and there are about 162 drugs missing. Some have been missing for a year. Others arrive at intervals and in small quantities. Essential medicines, such as salbutamol sprays for asthmatics or Enalapril for hypertensives, didn’t come in for three months. A group of 40 to 50 medications ranging from antihistamines to those intended for diabetics for circulatory problems, which are distributed through a card to patients who must take them consistently, haven’t been available for months,” she says.

Eugenia, a retiree, spent about eight months without treating an eruption on her arms, legs and back for lack of Clobetasol lotion. “In the end, I had to spend almost 10 chavitos (CUC – Cuban convertible pesos) from the money my niece sent me and buy it at the international pharmacy in the Habana Libre Hotel. She recently sent me several tubes of Clobetazol and the rash went away. Many medicines are gone and you can’t even find them under the table.”

The underground market, where there is generally a better supply than in the state retail network, doesn’t have the medications either.

“The reason is simple. If there are no medicines in the Public Health warehouses, you will not find medicines on the street. All medicines sold [under the table] come from hospitals and state stores. A few of us live off those sales. But for almost a year the shortage of medicines has ‘kept us quiet’,” says a  worker at a drug store.

The absence of medications is not attributable to Hurricane Irma. “Several Chinese suppliers who sold us the raw material have stopped the imports because of repeated defaults on the payments. That is the fundamental reason our pharmaceutical industry has entered into crisis,” says an official of the Reinaldo Gutiérrez Laboratory.

But shortages go beyond medicines. If you make a tour of the country’s shops and markets you will notice the absence of essential foods in the Cuban diet.

In a small foreign exchange establishment located on Calzada de Diez Octubre at Lagueruela, the shelves are packed with three products: vegetable oil, rum and mayonnaise imported from the United States. In the meat fridge, there are only pork burgers, at 0.70 CUC each.

“Before Irma there was already a shortage, but after the hurricane passed, shortages became more acute. Now we are lacking ground meat, chicken, sausages, canned sardines, spaghetti and soda crackers, among others. At one meeting they told us that these products were destined for the victims of the cyclone, as if the rest of us Cubans don’t have mouths,” says a clerk.

Yamila, a 55-year-old engineer, told me that she visited “all the markets of Centro Habana, Habana Vieja and Vedado to buy food and all I could buy was two packs of chicken and one of beef liver. They had toilet paper for sale in La Época, on Galiano Street, and the lines were tremendous. It looked like they were giving out visas to the United States.”

With the extraordinary capacity of government officials to evade reality, Diario Las Americas spoke with a manager of TRD Caribe, the network of stores run by GAESA, the military emporium that controls 80 percent of Cuba’s hard currency businesses, the causes of shortages and their possible solution.

The man cleared his throat a couple of times, answered a phone call on his cell phone and then started to answer. “First we have to take into account that Irma was not an ordinary hurricane. It affected 13 of the 16 Cuban provinces, almost the whole country,” he says, opening his eyes. After a pause he adds:

“Having said this, then we must take into account that a certain existing shortage is attributable to the transfer of products to areas most affected or to hoarding by unscrupulous people who are then dedicated to resell it.” 

“But the shortage has been going on for over a year. And toilet paper, which is sold exclusively in hard currency, is not essential for families who lost their homes. Or is it because Hurricane Irma affected several warehouses of tourism supplies, they were forced to transfer toilet paper to the hotels?” I ask him.

“There is no such shortage, and if it exists it is occasional. It happens that with the increase of private businesses, demand exceeds supply. As for toilet paper there was a problem in its production for lack of imported raw material. But the ship is already in port and in a few months the deficit will be overcome. It has nothing to do with tourism,” said the official with an optimistic speech.

Two Cubas coexist. That of the official narrative that the country has the winds in its sails, and the real one, where the price of food is high, many medicines scarce, and the substitute for toilet paper is usually torn pages of the newspaper Granma.

Interview with Julio Ferrer Tamayo, Independent Cuban Lawyer / Iván García

Julio Ferrer Tamayo, independent Cuban lawyer (Photo: Ivan Garcia)

Ivan Garcia,25 September 2017 — If you want to go to the house of the 58-year-old dissident lawyer, Julio Ferrer Tamayo, the busy Esquina de Tejas, which is ten minutes by car from central Havana, can do as a reference point. Four important city streets meet at the famous corner; Monte, Infanta, Calzadas de Cerro, and Diez de Octubre.

Walking through a dirty, broken-tiled entrance way, after going past San Joaquin and Romay, you get to a tiny house, whose door opens out to Monte Street, and that is where Ferrer lives. He receives me in black shorts and a blue sweater. His home is  hot, and has an upstairs addition which serves as a bedroom and bathroom. In the little living room is a sofa and two armchairs with ochre coloured covers. There is a music centre and an old television on a display cabinet.

After being in jail for eleven months for reasons I will explain in a minute, Julio Ferrer was freed on August 25th. He’s a free man. Or at least, in theory. Six days later, on Thursday morning, August 31st, he received some good news. “In a judgement, a tribunal determined that my wife should be declared innocent. I don’t think they will let her out quickly, but I hope that before the end of the year she will be able to be back home”, says Ferrer. continue reading

Since July 31st, 2012, five years and one month ago, the lawyer Marienys Pavó Oñate has been sleeping in a grey prisoner’s uniform in a women’s prison to the east of the capital. “The process rigged up by the legal system against her and me was cobbled together with false evidence. They set up a witch-hunt against me because in 2009 I joined some independent lawyers’ associations”, Ferrer told me in a slow and deliberate tone.

His disagreements with the government started long before that. A native of Santiago de Cuba, 937 km east of Havana, Julio was brought up by his parents with the maxim that your dignity is non-negotiable.

Like most Cubans, he applauded anyone who spoke about prosperity and sovereignty. But he always formed his own opinions. After he qualified as a lawyer, he saw at first hand the corrupt legal practices in Cuba.

He became one of the most respected judges and a well-regarded lawyer in a totalitarian regime, where the body of law which regulates a society is just words in the air.

“Until 1993 I was a judge in the Guanabacoa Municipal Tribunal. When I took up the appointment, there were dozens of cases filed away, and other irregularities which, with the help of the team working with me, I managed to bring up to date. I have always observed a cardinal principle: respect the rule of law — promote just decisions with guaranteed procedures, and ensure that the different institutions, be they the District Attorney or the law enforcement agencies, correctly document every accusation. But, very often, those in charge of administering justice fail to comply with this precept. There are diverse reasons for this non-compliance”, explains Ferrer, “from poor work, to the most dangerous case: falsifying evidence in order to convict an innocent person”.

He cites as an example “the case of someone  who was remanded in custody, and the Tribunal didn’t even have the documentation. This person should have been set free immediately. In order to justify this arbitrary application of the law, they constructed a false case, even including a fake entry in the register of decisions

In his opinion, “Tribunals in Cuba are not autonomous. The system of justice is driven by the whims of the government and the police authorities. There are subtle coercive mechanisms whereby a judge submits to the desires of the municipal or provincial party organisation or the police. In the La Tutelar festival, which, on August 15th, is celebrated in honour of Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, the patron saint of Guanabacoa, the police referred to the Tribunal a truck full of people detained for supposed criminal activities, in the hope that we would make a speedy decision and throw them in jail. As the judge, seeing them violating criminal procedures, I set them free. For this, I was viewed with disapproval in the Ministry of the Interior, the Public Attorney’s office and the Communist Party”.

In Cuba, if you grant yourself autonomy, you pay a price. There is an invisible frontier, and nobody knows just how far you can go and how far is too far. And the lawyer Julio Ferrer crossed the line.

Ferrer recalls that “I had dossiers on people who were sanctioned and, because of various irregularities, were absolved and had to be given back their property. I remember the case of a bogus front company, managed by the Council of State, which openly flouted all the applicable legislation. An employee died because of an accident at work, and the Public Prosecutor accused an electrician as the supposedly guilty party. After studying all the documentation, I requested that the Director of the company and the Head of Human Resources appear before me as the accused, in order to clarify what happened. None other than José Luis Toledo Santander, who was then the Provincial Public Prosecutor and the Dean of the Law Faculty, and now heads up the Commision of Constitutional Affairs and National Assembly of Popular Power lawyers, came to my office to try to persuade me. When I wasn’t convinced, he simply voided the decision”.

Julio’s close friends told him about the animosity felt by the political and police authorities against him in the Guanabacoa Municipality of Havana. They had their eyes on him.

“Long before I became a dissident, I was identified as a ’problem’. They tried to buy me off in different ways but I stood my ground. Most of the judges and prosecutors who handled cases of interest to the state collaborate with State Security, and I never could accept that. In 1993 I decided to stop my activities as a judge and I started work as a lawyer in a collective law office. They never found me doing anything dirty. I was the first to arrive at work and the last to leave. I always kept up my studies, improving myself and keeping up-to-date. I specialised in criminal, administrative and military law. But I was a nuisance”, Ferrer confesses.

Then came the moment for scores to be settled. It happened in 2009 when he first joined the Cuban Legal Association, and then Cubalex, two organisations considered illegal by the government. That’s when the crusade began against the marriage of the two lawyers, Julio Ferrer Tamayo and Marienys Pavó Oñate. Cubalex, a  consultancy run by Laritza Diversant, was compulsorily dissolved by the State Security on September 23, 2016.

Anyone who disobeys Castroism knows that one of the special services’ favourite strategies to make an opponent cave in is to use their family. And Marienys, Ferrer’s wife, was the first victim. “They accused her of bribery and alleged falsification of the documents of her own house. Then later they sentenced her to nine years detention for fraud. And lastly, on a joint basis the sentence was fixed at seven years. It is all an invention. Her case cannot bear the most minimal legal analysis. What’s more, the prison governor has asked for different documentation from the tribunals and the response has been silence. My wife is a hostage. It’s a strategy to break me down”.

Julio himself has been accused by the government of various crimes. But in the end the authorities let him go free. “When, on September 23rd, they arbitrarily held me in the Cubalex offices, no-one, in five police units, wanted to take me, because of the obvious irregularities of the case. The whole process is a farce”, which is the word Ferrer uses to refer to the political police and the Cuban legal system.

Julio Ferrer completed eleven months of detention in Prison 1580, located in  San Miguel del Padrón, southeast of Havana. “Who pays for those judicial errors?” I ask him. There is in Cuba a norm for compensation after any arbitrary legal action. But it never happens, least of all with someone who is considered to be an enemy of the Revolution”, replies the independent lawyer, who still maintains his unequal dispute with the despotic state.

“I am going to present an action in the tribunals against chancellor Bruno Rodríguez for the falsehoods and calumnies presented against me in the Human Rights Council of the United Nations in Geneva” says Ferrer.

“Who gains from this lawsuit? Don’t you know that Cuba is an authentic dictatorship?” I ask him. “Having a knowledge of the relevant laws puts you at an advantage. Not even the government complies with its own legislation. In this peaceful confrontation, we are demonstrating the ineffectiveness of the system. The weapon which can give us victory is having better legal knowledge than the government functionaries”, he replies.

Night starts to fall in El Pilar, the working class district in El Cerro where the untiring dissident lawyer lives. In the background you can hear the racket from a room near his home and a reggaeton at full volume.

Julio Ferrer turns on his old television. He wants to watch the National Series baseball game. Then he phones Carla, his daughter, and they chat for a while. Some day in October or November he hopes that his wife will knock on the door.

In the medium term, the Ferrer-Pavó partners will probably emigrate to the United States as political refugees. They don’t see any other way out.  They have suffered brutal harassment by the government. And in Cuba you find yourself in no mans land.

Translated by GH

What Cubans Say About the Partial Closure of the US Embassy / Iván García

Cuban Custodian of the US Embassy in Havana directs a citizen who may not know that the diplomatic headquarters is partially closed since September 29, 2017 and will not issue visas indefinitely. Taken from Sputnik Mundo.

Ivan Garcia, 6 October 2017 — On Friday, 29 September, a light intermittent drizzle and overcast sky lent a mournful touch to the area around the United States Embassy in Havana.

The six-story building with tinted glass and stone-clad facade, where every morning hundreds of people line up for consular appointments and dozens of dissidents wait to connect to the internet for free, seemed abandoned.

A few cars with diplomatic plates were parked in a side street very close to the main entrance of the embassy. Hurricane Irma’s furious winds and flooding from the sea caused damage to the building and and visa interviews had been postponed. continue reading

But the food service businesses and those dedicated to filling out visa forms were still at work. Pedro, 78, residing in a nearby building, works advising those who travel to the United States.

He charges the equivalent of $23 USD for shooting photos, filling out the visa application form and then sending it online to the consular office. On Friday afternoon, when it was learned that the Trump administration would indefinitely suspend the issuing of visas, Pedro was in his living room helping Daniel, a client with plans to fly to the United States before the end of the year. “I hope that the sea will recede and the embassy will return to serving Cubans who emigrate under the family reunification program. So far nothing has been said that these agreements have been broken,” says Daniel trying to be optimistic.

Pedro, owner of the small ’legal’ business, is not as optimistic. “I sense that this diplomatic war has just begun. Behind it is the intent to end the 20,000 annual visas that, under an agreement with Bill Clinton, they began to issue beginning in 1994. Anyone who is knowledgeable knows that Trump and the Clintons are political enemies. Trump has gotten it into his blond head to bury the entire legacy of Obama. The guy is worse than a hurricane. I support my family thanks to this work. If the embassy closes, I will have to find something else to do.”

Several private cafes and food outlets were deserted. “Ninety percent of our clients are the people who are doing immigration paperwork with the embassy. If the Yumas now decide to close it, I will have to turn in my business license,” says David, owner of a paladar (private restaurant) near Rivero Funeral Home.

In the park on Linea Street at the corner of L Streed, near the Camilo Cienfuegos Clinic for foreigners, several people connected to the internet via the wifi available in the park openly expressed their concern. “Good grief. It’s always the same: . It always happens the same: the American government gets into with those people and it’s the ordinary Cuba who always loses,” said a loud Havanan, holding his smartphone in front of his face while chatting with a relative in Florida.

Danay, a high school student, after speaking with the father through the IMO application, told Martí Noticia his impressions. “My mom and I wanted to emigrate to the United States this past July. But my dad, who has lived in New Jersey for fifteen years, told me to wait until the end of the year, so when I get there I can start college. And now look at the bomb that Trump just dropped. ”

Since the immigration agreements agreed upon by Bill Clinton and Fidel Castro in 1994, nearly half a million Cubans have been able to emigrate in an orderly, legal and secure manner to the United States under the family reunification program.

After this temporary suspension, Cubans with plans to emigrate or visit their family in the North, began to generate unfounded rumors. “This was coming. Trump is the most anti-immigrant president in US history. Using the acoustic attacks as an excuse, they want to do away with 20,000 visas a year. Cuba was the only country in the world that had that privilege. First it was Obama, repealing the wet foot/dry foot policy. Now Trump. You will see that in the end they end up overturning the Cuban Adjustment Act. But even more to blame than Trump, are the Cuban-American members of congress who claim to defend the interests of the people on the island, but always end up fucking over the Cubans,” says Julian, self-employed.

For lack of detailed information, Cubans do not understand why the US government decided to temporarily close the embassy. The story of the acoustic attacks on a score of US officials reads like a script by John Le Carré.

“If the Russian weapons used by the Cuban armed forces are more than forty years old, where the hell is G-2 [State Security] is going to get an ultra modern sonic weapon. Nor do I believe the version that North Korea or Russia mounted that operation without involving the ’apparatus’ [State Security]. Nothing works here, but State Security has it all under control. That story is longer or parts of it are missing, things that have not been told,” says Livio, a retiree.

In a survey of 23 people (neighbors, friends, acquaintances and relatives), 12 responded that they believed the regime of Raúl Castro was not behind these acoustic aggressions, due to lack of technology; 6 said that if “Trump has taken these measures, it is because it’s some kind of trick,” and 5 said they did not know anything about it.

In the opposition, opinions are diverse. Manuel Cuesta Morúa, an academic, believes that “the Trump government has been quick to withdraw half of its diplomatic staff.”

Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello, an economist, believes that “it is a sovereign decision of the United States government, because the embassy is part of its territory.” The veteran opponent thinks that “this decision will affect air flights, trips of Americans to Cuba and the entrance of dollars into the coffers of the regime”. And she points out that the regime’s response could be more repression. “I was going to travel to the United States and the Cuban authorities did not let me.”

The opponent and former political prisoner Angel Moya, husband of Berta Soler, leader of the Ladies in White, agrees with Roque “that the United States has every right to protect its diplomatic officers who were subjected to a sonic attack,” he said, and added, “The Cuban population is very uninformed. Official sources have not reported that some Canadian officials were also affected. The reaction of the regime can manifest itself in several ways. One of them would be to repress even more regime opponents who are supporters of the Trump government.”

According to Juan González Febles, director of the weekly Primavera Digital, “The first beneficiary of the closure of the embassy is the regime. Now independent journalists and human rights activists cannot connect to the internet for free at the US embassy. It has also changed the situation for those who qualify for the family reunification program. A considerable part of Cubans, at some point, are planning to emigrate to the United States. Those 20,000 visas were an escape valve. With this measure, the most conservative wings of the dictatorship and exile won. And of course, the regime’s response will be to increase repression against the opposition.”

If they agree on anything, the dissidents interviewed agree that the decision to partially close the embassy is the first move of a strategy that could bring consequences in the political and repressive environment within Cuba.

The honeymoon between the Palace of the Revolution and the White House extended for two years. With the arrival of unpredictable Trump, analysts hoped that getting involved in the Cuban issue was not in his interest. But the reality has been different.

The US president has set out to reverse Obama’s policies. And Cuba was an important piece in that legacy. The feeling is that we are living the first chapter of a story that promises to be more extensive.

A battle in the style of Donald Trump. And waiting for the olive-green response from Raul Castro.

The Cold War Returns to Cuba / Iván García

Lining up in front of the US embassy in Havana. See note below.

Ivan Garcia, 3 October 2017 — “The worst thing after a hurricane is that the food is lost,” says high school teacher Liana, 37, after making the rounds of several farmer’s markets and stores in the old part of Havana.

“There are no eggs in the whole city, not even a package of hotdogs. More then 100 medications are missing from the pharmacies, and to top it off, Trump orders the closure of the embassy. Those of us who have plans to emigrate to the United States, we see Cuba as a mousetrap,” she says, summarizing her frustrations.

It seems that a lot of time has passed since that historic afternoon of 17 December 2014, when both nations emerged from the trenches they dug during the Cold War. continue reading

At supersonic speed, people went from the greatest optimism to the deepest indifference. The Castro autocracy, with its pathological fear of authentic reforms that would favor the people, did not undertake structural changes in the economy, nor did they accept Washington’s gifts to private entrepreneurs.

The military junta that rules Cuba did not disconnect the chip of confrontation and was convinced that Barack Obama’s strategy was to annihilate with white gloves the ineffective communist system.

The White House’s new strategy had more friends than enemies. Although a segment of Cuban exile and local dissidence considered that Obama gave much in exchange for nothing. That on the island a dictatorship still prevailed and the repression against those who think differently was increased.

“Cuba does not have to change, Cuba has already changed with Fidel Castro’s Revolution in 1959,” said Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez. Raul Castro’s game was to buy time and accept from the United States only those businesses that favored the capitalist corporations of the State. Zero deals with Google, “because they affect our digital sovereignty.”

Private workers can not be allowed to receive Yankee credits, because if they get rich, they can endanger the state of affairs. Authorize ferries? No way, because then Cubans living in the United States would enter Cuba with more than 200 pounds of stuff and the “hard currency collection stores” (as they are officially named), with prices at the level of Qatar, wouldn’t be able to sell so much as a single screw.

The regime only accepts cash. The strategy is to spend dollars on the island and benefit the olive-green (military) business network that runs all the businesses that generate hard currency.

If Raul Castro had been reasonable and taken advantage of the opportunities offered by Obama, the electoral victory of Trump would not have caught him with his pants down. He misplayed his cards. He thought he would continue floating in the cloud of the gatopardismo* with the imminent triumph of Hillary Clinton.

But Trump, the unpredictable New York tycoon, surprised both Tyrians and Trojans. And now, the regime of Castro II is forced to play on the defensive. With nothing to grab on to.

Russia, is no longer the Soviet Union. China is communist only in theory: in practice it wants business in exchange for money. Venezuela is on fire. And in America First by Donald Trump, Cuba does not offer profitability.

Trump, a leader who uses Twitter as a hunting rifle, a priori is winning the game against Castro. And, incidentally,he kills two birds with one stone.

He is pleased with the conservative wing of the Cuban exile and puts a stop to the immigration blackmail of his late brother, who in 1994 forced Bill Clinton to sign an agreement with Cuba for 20,000 annual visas in exchange for curbing the illegal exodus of the rafters.

The Cuban people, as always, are the losers. It is true that it is a sovereign decision of the United States to protect its officials. But the plot of “Ear-gate” sounds like a lousy Cold War espionage movie.

There are too many unanswered questions. Aurelio, 28, who was hoping to emigrate to Miami under the family reunification agreement, feels that the Trump government has betrayed him.

“We Cubans are alone. I really did not imagine that Marco Rubio and the Cuban-American members of congress were going to forsake those who were legally immigrating. An agreement is an agreement. I hope Trump will reconsider, “says Aurelio.

I doubt it. Because Trump sees that Clinton agreement, like Obama’s legacy, as a bad agreement. The US president believes he can make a better deal.

Cubans on the Island are hostages of a military autocracy that will not unleash the country’s internal productive forces, puts the brakes on private work on a large scale and transforms citizens into zombies.

He is also a hostage of the most conservative wing of the Cuban exile, who from their seats in the Capitol, as a weapon of pressure to overthrow Castroism, utilize a set of prohibitions that affect Cubans on the island who must drink their coffee without milk, while six decades of history has verified that these pressures have not contributed to bringing democracy to the country.

They are constantly shooting themselves in the foot. Neither the Obama formula nor Trump’s prescription will prevent the repression of dissent. In a rapture of civility, Raul Castro will not bet on democracy.

The pressure cooker theory will not work by remote control. Cubans are more likely to throw themselves into the sea on anything that floats, than they are to go out into the streets to shout freedom. Dictatorships have complex dynamics. Congenital inefficiency corrodes them like cancer. They fall by their own weight.

The dream of the hardline exile, of an indignant sea of people taking the Palace of the Revolution by storm, while on the other side of the puddle the professional political agitators celebrate with champagne, is just that, a dream.

Most ordinary Cubans are tired of everything. Since they have no vocation to martyrdom, they choose to emigrate. And watch from Miami, in colors and high definition, the longed for “riots in the streets of Havana.”

Cubans can be accused of being cowards. But not fools.

Photo note: Every day, from Monday to Friday, a line similar to the one in the photo forms as Cubans line up for consular procedures related to temporary trips for personal reasons or work in the United States or be permanently reunited with their families. But from the measures taken on September 29 by the US State Department, for an indefinite time the granting of visas is stopped and the current number of US diplomats and officials accredited in Cuba will be reduced by 60 percent. To those drastic measures is added an alert so that citizens of the United States will not travel to the Island. The new tightness or cold war on this occasion was motivated by alleged acoustic attacks that between 2016 and 2017 have damaged the hearing of and caused other health problems for US and Canadian diplomats in Havana. Although the United States is investigating what has happened and has not formally accused Cuba of being behind the mysterious sonic aggressions, nor has it shown any evidence, it decided to take measures that will affect the families of the almost two million Cubans living on the other side and, in general, to the march of relations between Cuba and the United States, reestablished on December 17, 2014 (Tania Quintero).

*Translator’s note: “Gatopardismo” is a term that means “changing everything so that nothing changes.” The term comes from the novel “Gattopardo” by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa.

What if Hurricane María had gone through Cuba? / Iván García

Photo: By Yariel Valdés González in Caibarié, a fishing village to the north of Villa Clara province, which suffered greatly in the path of Irma. Taken by Periodismo de Barrio

Ivan Garcia, 22 September 2017 — In that bit of Havana between Calle Línea and Avenida del Malecón, people are still taking out mattresses, clothes, furniture, and other things damaged by the sea which was driven inland by the powerful Hurricane Irma two weeks ago, and leaving them to air in the sun.

In any park, house in multiple occupation, or corner in Vedado, with a network of buildings and grand old houses with designs ranging from Art Deco and Neo-Classical to reinforced concrete, built before Fidel Castro changed architecture into the clunky and the vulgar, their residents tell stories with typical Cuban exaggeration. continue reading

“I am telling you that when the water got into the garage in my building, the cars were floating. It felt as if someone was tapping on the wall of my room, and it was the cars, which were drifting about like crazy spinning tops,” I am assured by Ignacio a 76-year-old pensioner, standing in a queue to get a portion of yellow rice with hot dogs for 5 pesos (20 cents USD).

In various kiosks improvised by the state to help people affected by Irma’s blast, they sell packets of crackers for 25 pesos, tins of sardines for 28 pesos and guava sticks for 17.

“People with money don’t buy that food, because here we now have electric light and gas in the street. This kind of “grub” is for the poorest people, who, both before and after the hurricane, lived without a cent to their name. The government doesn’t begin to understand that families who have no money, and there are lots of them, cannot buy stuff, even if they sell it cheap. They should give this food away without charge. It’s not our fault we are poor,” says Luis Manuel, a man with calloused hands who collects empty drink and beer cans and then sells them as a raw material.

Not everyone living in El Vedado is upper crust, earning lots of money and being sent dollars from family on the other side of the Straits of Florida. Just like Miramar and other middle class districts in Havana before 1959, El Vedado has been marginalised, many houses are in danger of collapsing, and lots of elegant residences have been transformed into slum tenements with hundreds of families living in dodgy conditions.

The patio of the big old house where the poet Dulce María Loynaz lived, in 14th Street between Línea and  Calzada, has been converted into a plot with innumerable pigstys made of wood and panels thrown up in a hurry.

Round and about the US embassy, where the hurricane mercilessly attacked the building, there are clusters of residential areas and basements of buildings converted into apartments which have been flooded up to the ceiling by sea water.

Magda, a single mother with three children, who sells cleaning products, clothing and memory cards on the side, brought to Havana in suitcases by “mules,” believes she is dogged by misfortune.

“I don’t know why, but destiny is treating me cruelly. I fight to take care of my kids, I am an honest person, I don’t rob or blame anybody. I have bad luck, like I was born under a bad sign.  I have spent fifty years  trying to live the way God wants and trying to get out of being poor. And there’s no way.  And now the government comes down from the clouds with the news that it’s going to sell building materials at half price. They’re either fools or they’re playing the fool. Can’t they understand that people aren’t living badly because they’re masochists? It’s because the money we have coming in isn’t enough to live any better. For people like me, with the roof falling down around our heads, the only way to repair your house is if the state covers all the cost,” says an angry Magda.

Up and down the country there is a frank discussion concerning what kind of strategy there should be about building materials needed to deal with natural disasters. Some think there should be affordable insurance policies, others that designers and civil engineers should come up with houses which are more hurricane-resistant.

“It’s a viscious circle. Every year the government sells you panels and poor quality building materials, and the following year, when a new hurricane comes along, the wind destroys your roof or your house again. What do they make corrugated iron roofs for? You don’t need to be a genius to see that hurricanes always affect the poorest people. None of the houses in Siboney or Miramar, where the elegant people live, suffered any upheavals from Irma,” says Eulogio, who lives on a plot in El Vedado.

Two weeks after the Irma bombshell destroyed thousands of houses, schools, hotels, crops, poultry farms and state institutions in its path, the people living in the areas most affected are at breaking point.

A fisherman living in Isabela de Sagua, 331 kms east of the capital, who is passing through Havana, says “Hurricane Irma practically wiped my village off the map. 90% of the houses were partly damaged or completely destroyed. It will be years before we can recover from it. If Hurricane María had gone through Cuba, we would have needed Jesus to come here after it and pray for us.”

Fifty-eight years after Hurricane Fidel Castro established communism in the island, burying freedom of the press, opposition parties, and converting democracy into empty words, hurricanes are the enemy to be defeated. They affect Cuba, the Caribbean and the United States; the number one enemy of the Castro brothers. Each time they are stronger and more destructive. Human ingenuity, which was able to put a man on the moon, create the internet and eradicate fatal diseases, hasn’t found an effective way to reduce their damage.

As long as the olive-green autocracy goes on distributing panels and materials which are only good for repairing minor damage, and while they go on building fewer than eight thousand solid houses a year, the fury of the hurricanes will carry on devastating the towns in their path. And, as always, the people most affected will be the poor.

Translated by GH

Cuban Hurricane Victims Demand Cuts in Prices and Customs Fees / Iván García

Photo by Julio Batista for ’The slow death of Centro Habana’, a report by Elaine Díaz published on September 14, 2017 in Barrio Journalism.

Ivan Garcia, 18 September 2017 — TV Cuba is different. In the news, we see mechanical shovels collecting debris, brigades of electrical linemen repairing the posts blown down by the powerful hurricane and optimistic citizens who “trust that the revolution will not leave them helpless.”

Real Cuba is something else. Garbage collection is done at a snail’s pace. More than a few towns in the interior of the country will be a month without electricity and the service of drinking water is deficient.

After noon on Wednesday, September 13, in the Havana neighborhood of Santos Suárez, hundreds of people started a street protest because of lack of electricity and water. Residents threw rotted food in the street, demanded repairs for their homes and asked the authorities for better government management. continue reading

Let’s call him Eduardo. He participated in the spontaneous street demonstration and believes that “the government should greatly reduce prices in foreign currency stores, for the sale of construction materials and also reduce the high customs tariffs on parcels sent by our relatives from abroad.”

Irma destroyed the roof of Eduardo’s precarious room in a tenement on Calzada Diez de Octubre and the rain destroyed his mattress, television and an electric rice cooker, his personal belongings.

“The materials that the government is selling to those with damaged homes is subsidized but only at 10 or 15 percent. You have to be physically disabled or a pensioner who is solely dependent on your pension, for the authorities to pay in full. Even with the price cuts, cement, aggregates and tiles are too expensive for those who work for the state, because we earn miserable wages,” says Eduardo.

As of six days after Hurricane Irma, the coastal Havana neighborhoods of Playa, Plaza, Centro Habana, Habana Vieja and Habana del Este, where the sea flooded into the city up to three feet deep, still lack electrical service and drinking water.

Germán, a resident of the poor neighborhood of San Leopoldo, is a guy with a short fuse who, when speaking, gestures with his hands and uses bursts of swear words.” Man, if this is not resolved, I swear I’m going to throw the furniture down the street and I’ll shout slogans against the government. This is a wreck. The light and water guys tell you one lie after another and my patience is already running out.”

Diario Las Américas asked about twenty men and women who suffered damages due to Hurricane Irma, their opinions about how to better manage the disaster.

Carla resides in Cojimar and lost her house: “The first thing is that the high officials of the government show their faces and explain without half measures or their official gobbledygook the real state of the situation. They should listen to what people think. And people want them to lower the inflated prices of food and goods in the stores. They want their relatives living abroad to be able to send them, without customs fees in hard currency, sheets, towels, mattresses, appliances … Also, deliver extra quotas of food and construction materials, free of charge, to those who suffered damages.”

A Civil Defense official who preferred anonymity claims that “the ideal would be for the State to offer free food and construction materials to the population. But in Cuba the economy is in the dumps. The budget for hurricane and natural disaster impacts is limited. While the United States has billions of dollars when natural catastrophes occur, the Cuban government has a few million pesos.”

According to official figures, in case of natural disasters, the state budget has a reserve of 200 million pesos, about 8 million dollars at the current exchange rate.

Jorge, an economist, believes that “this budget is not enough to even get started in the case of this hurricane. Although officially unreported, the total amount of damages left by Irma in the national territory could amount to billions of dollars. Of the 16 provinces in Cuba, four (Camagüey, Ciego de Avila, Villa Clara and Sancti Spiritus) were directly affected and in others it also it wreaked havoc. Almost half of the 169 municipalities in the country suffered with more or less intensity the consequences of the hurricane on the island.”

In the opinion of the economist, “it would be reasonable to apply price reductions immediately in all hard currency stores and not only for food that for lack of electricity could be spoiled, as some stores in Havana have just done, where they lowered the price of many of their refrigerated products by 70%.

“Likewise, a broad expansion of articles allowed to be imported by Cuban travelers as well as those sent by Cubans residing abroad to their relatives in Cuba. Other problems to be resolved in the medium term are to create insurance companies that can compensate for damages caused by natural disasters and to underground the electrical networks in big cities. And of course, build more robust homes, capable of withstanding the onslaught of a cyclone.”

In Cuba, there is only one insurance company, ESEN, but it only provides coverage to state-owned companies and agricultural cooperatives (although on its website it reports that it also insures cars and other private properties).

But ordinary Cubans don’t know how it works. In addition to cumbersome procedures to obtain bank credits, these are only allowed up to twenty thousand pesos (800 dollars). And because of inflation and high cost of living on the Island, that amount is not enough to put on a new roof, let alone repair hurricane-damaged doors and windows.

In several neighborhoods of Havana and in the rest of Cuba there have been public demonstrations brought about by the government’s mismanagement after Irma. “What happened in Santos Suárez expanded like gunpowder all over the country. People from other places will also try it. They know that there will be no legal sanctions [for the demonstratorss] and that electricity and water will be promptly restored,” affirms a neighbor of the Vibora neighborhood, which borders Santos Suárez where the initial demonstrations took place.

In several areas of Havana, along with tree trunks and branches, especially in corners, all kinds of waste has accumulated, where rodents and cockroaches swarm, not to mention flies and mosquitoes.

“Five or six times a day I call the Communal Service and no one picks up the phone. If they do not clean the city, an epidemic could break out at any moment. In the newspaper Granma, a doctor from the provincial department of hygiene and epidemiology said that “sanitizing the city is a responsibility of every citizen.”

It seems that she does not know that for that type of cleaning they need equipment and gloves. And the brooms and dustpans that people have to clean their homes aren’t enough for that,” explains Sara, a resident of Lawton.

Cubans feel like they have reached their limit. That the regime does not listen to people and is indifferent to their complaints. Then they decide to scream their irritation in the public street. They feel that they have nothing to lose anymore.