Cuba: Is Varadero for People of Another Social Class? / Ivan Garcia

Under a brightly colored umbrella, a representative of Gaviota, a tourism chain, the property of businessmen in the Cuban military, offers an inclusive leisure package for the summer.

The bureau of reservations is nestled in an old parking lot of a strip mall in 5th Avenue and 42nd, Miramar, to the west of Havana.

It is Saturday. There is a festive atmosphere: Kiosks selling popcorn, sandwiches, and frozen pizzas that are heated in the microwave and taste like plastic. Meanwhile, flat screen televisions are airing the World Cup soccer matches in Brazil.

There has to be music. Randomly situated speakers amplify too loudly the current hit, Bailando, by Enrique Iglesisas, Descemer Bueno, and People of the Zone.

In the tourism bureau everything is a hustle. Over a table, public pamphlets of “all-inclusive” hotels in Varadero, Cayo Coco, or Santa Lucia.

Past nine-thirty in the morning they begin to see clients. The personnel are friendly with Colgate smiles and a commercial diction learned through quick marketing courses. Continue reading

Not Everything About a Cuban Athlete is Worthwhile / Ivan Garcia

Photo: Taken from "Yasiel Puig’s Untold Journey to the Dodgers," published in LA Magazine.

There have been so many escapes by Cuban baseball players and boxers that they have stopped being news. The stories behind some of these defections could make a Hollywood script.

From the late-90’s land and sea odyssey of Havana pitcher Orlando “Duque” Hernandez, who signed with the New York Yankees, to the unusual escape of the fabulous shortstop Rey Ordóñez, who jumped over a wall during his team’s warmup in a tournament in Buffalo, New York, in 1993.

Within the plot of an escape there is a blend of diverse ingredients. There’s a bit of everything:  human traffickers, drug cartels, and sports scouts.

Some rafter-ballplayers have tried escaping several times. When caught, they opt for the mea culpa traditional in authoritarian societies. Continue reading

Cuba: The Tricks of the Embargo / Ivan Garcia

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In Havana, the good medical specialists always have at hand two kinds of treatment for their patients.

“If it is a person with family abroad or of high purchasing power, I propose that he go to the international pharmacy to buy the medications in foreign currency because they are of higher quality and more effective. Those who cannot, then I prescribe the treatment approved by the ministry of Public Health with medicines of low quality manufactured in Cuban laboratories or of Chinese origin,” reports Rigoberto (name changed), an allergist with more than two decades of experience.

When you visit one of the 20 international pharmacies located in the Cuban capital, you can find a wide range of medicines patented by pharmaceutical companies of the United States.

From eye drops, syrups, tablets and ointments. Their prices instill fear. Lidia, an engineer, browses the shelves meticulously in search of Voltaren eye drops, indicated by the ophthalmologist to begin a treatment of her mother who underwent cataract surgery. Continue reading

Fidel Castro’s Undesirables / Ivan Garcia

Photo: Over 125,000 Cubans departed from the port of Mariel on boats like these bound for the Florida coast between April 15 and October 31, 1980. Source: Martí Noticias.

It was Spring 1980 in Havana. Before dawn a group of policemen hurriedly entered the cells of the Eastern Consolidated prison, known as the “pizzeria.” After lining the inmates up, their backs to the wall along a narrow corridor, an official of the Ministry of Interior spoke in a loud voice and without beating around the bush.

He was blunt. “You can get on a bus that’s waiting outside and leave for the United States, or within three days your prison sentences will be doubled. You choose,” he said.

“Imagine, I was sentenced to 20 years in prison for murder,” recalls Randolfo, sitting in a park in the Havana neighborhood of La Vibora. “Going to the U.S. was my  passport to freedom.

“I don’t know if my sins can be purged. I stole, killed and caused harm. Since I was sixteen-years-old, prison had been like home. In January 1980 I was transferred from the prison at La Cabaña to Eastern Consolidated, which was still under construction. Before the incident at the Peruvian embassy, which took place before the stampede at the port of Mariel, I was in a prison cell. I didn’t think twice about leaving,” recalls Randolfo. Continue reading

Internet in Cuba: A Success in Spite of Everything / Ivan Garcia

CUBA-INTERNET ACCESSEight in the morning. On the ground floor of the Focsa building  – Cuba’s Empire State – on M between 17 and 19 Vedado, in a shop between the Guiñol theatre and a beaten-up bar at the entrance to the Scherezada club, a queue of about 15 people are waiting to enter the internet room.

It is one of 12  in Havana. They are few, and badly distributed for a city with more than two and a half million inhabitants. In El Vedado and Miramar there are four, two in each neighbourhood. Nevertheless, 10 de Octubre, the municipality with the most inhabitants in the island, doesn’t have any at all.

Poorer municipalities like San Miguel, Cotorro and Arroyo Naranjo (the metropolitan district with the greatest incidence of acts of violence in the country), don’t have anywhere to connect  to the internet either.

On June 4, 2013, they opened 118 internet rooms for the whole island. According to an ETECSA (Telecommunications Company of Cuba) official, around 900,000 users have accessed the service. Not very impressive figures. Continue reading

Cuba: Its Silent Conquest of Venezuela / Ivan Garcia

Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez in one of their many meetings in Havana. From La Vanguardia

February 2006. Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez in one of their many meetings in Havana. From La Vanguardia

Not in his wildest dreams did Fidel Castro think he would gain political control of and derive economic benefit from a nation nine times bigger than Cuba, with two and a half times the population and with the biggest oil reserves on the planet.

Cuba’s ideological colonisation of Venezuela could go down in history as a work of art in terms of political domination. The bearded chap never ceases to surprise us.

He wasn’t a minor autocrat. For better or worse, he was always a political animal. Charlatan, student gangster and manipulator, and always audacious.

He showed his clear inability to create riches and establish a solid and coherent economy. Before he came to power, at the point of a rifle in January 1959, Cuba was the second largest economy in Latin America. Continue reading

Soviet Cuba Remains in the Official Imagination / Ivan Garcia

Dmitri-Medvedev-Raúl-Castro-620x330It’s hard to bury faith in any God, ideology, or vices. For others, like Vladimir, the passion for the Soviet era, like old rockers, never dies.

Son of Communist parents, he studied at universities in the former USSR. He speaks Russian like a Muscovite and still reads Gorki or the poems of Yevstushenko in the original language.

On a pine shelf he has a bunch of Soviet writers in the style of Borís Polevói, Nikolái Ostrovski, Mijaíl Shólojov or Ilya Ehrenburg, who wrote the epic of the Red Army in World War II.

Vladimir is not considered a fanatic. In his room there are no canvases of Stalin, Marx or Lenin . “The USSR may seem like an old newspaper. But it is not dead yet. In Cuba people don’t find Russian cartoons or corned beef strange. It is in the power structures where still latent are certain mechanisms of the Soviet era.”

Dismantling this shed is an arduous task. A vertical government, omnipresent secret police, a broad sector of the planned economy and the usual unanimity of approving laws in the boring national parliament, are vestiges of the official Soviet Cuba that resists death.

Cubans like Vladimir worked for years on building institutions modeled on the Soviet Union. From the Constitution to the Pioneer organizations. Continue reading

Cuba: The Numbers Don’t Add Up / Ivan Garcia

A young woman admiring items for sale at at hard-currency shopping mall in Havana. Source: Secretos de Cuba.

Olga, a 62-year-old engineer, spends 11.50 CUC a month (about US $13.00) on two bags of powdered milk for herself and her family.

“I don’t consider a glass or two of milk in the morning for breakfast a luxury. My 93-year-old father drinks as much as four glasses. A relative in Switzerland sends me 100 euros a month so I can provide the old man with beef, milk and cheese. On my 512 peso salary (about $22.00) I would never be able to afford it,” says Olga.

The new price increases set by the government of President Raul Castro mean that the Havana engineer will have to pay 13.20 CUC for two one-kilogram bags, an increase of 1.70 CUC. Continue reading

Cuba: Challenging the Future Mounted on a Raft / Ivan Garcia

Cubans keep jumping into the sea to try to reach the United States | Photo taken from Latin American Studies Group

Cubans keep jumping into the sea to try to reach the United States | Photo taken from Latin American Studies Group

It’s like playing Russian Roulette. Although the numbers are terrifying– one in three rafters is a snack for the sharks — many people in Cuba take the issue with a lightness that causes chills.

Probably the Straits of Florida is the largest marine cemetery in the world. There are no hard figures of the children, young people, adults, and elderly who lie under its turbulent waters. Continue reading

Cuba-United States: Focusing on Transparency / Ivan Garcia

ivan cuba us 4-abril-beyonce2-620x330There are not always good arguments for trampling on the jurisdiction of a foreign nation. The Cold War mentality is still latent in the behavior of certain U.S. institutions.

If a government believes in democracy and political freedom, it shouldn’t go around hiding its peaceful efforts to support the democrats in autocratic countries like Cuba.

The performance of USAID in the case of the contractor Alan Gross, jailed for clandestinely introducing satellite internet connections, or of Zunzuneao, the so-called Cuban Twitter, have been burdened by a lack of transparency and professionalism. Continue reading

Blacks and Mixed-Race Still Marginalized in Cuba / Ivan Garcia

Photo: Juan Antonio Madrazo.

Every summer since 2009, in line with the economic openings of General Castro, Gerald, the owner of a photography business, has rented a room in a hotel in Varadero for 5 nights.

Gerald, a white man married to a mixed-race woman, authoritatively calls attention to the small number of black or mixed-race Cuban tourists. “There are very few. I stay in four and five-star hotels and the blacks that I’ve seen are either employees, or partners of foreigners.” Continue reading