A Cuban Rapper Rebels against a Corrupt Bureaucracy and Wins / Juan Juan Almeida

Henry Laso Martinez, known as “El Encuyé.

Juan Juan Almeida, 17February 2017 — After two years and eight months of prolonged struggle, the inconclastic Santiago de Cuba rapper Henry Laso Martinez, known as “El Encuyé,” won the first round in a battle against corrupt officials in charge of the country’s most powerful musical organization, the Cuban Institute of Music.

In the summer of 2012, the young musician and former leader of the group Pasión Caribe needed a permit to work as a singer. He claims that Orlando Vistel Columbié, who was then vice-president of the Institute of Music, told him he would have to pay 500 CUC (USD $500) for the right to audition.

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Laso paid it, assuming this type of extortion was normal procedure and because he needed the paperwork. Four years later he needed another permit, this time to be a soloist. Reinaldo Almeira, the director of a music group named for Cuban singer Benny Moré, told him the fee would be 1,000 CUC, 700 of which would go to Vistel for the right to a new audition. Though Laso paid it, his application was turned down.

Thus began the rapper’s painful odyssey. He filed complaints with the police and the attorney general. He sent letters to Raúl Castro, to Orlando Vistel, to Reinaldo Almeida, to the director of Tumbao Mayor Orchestra and to Conrado, a colonel from the Ministry of the Interior assigned to handle musical affairs at the Ministry of Culture. When none of them responded, Laso became radicalized.

“I had posters put up, I had young people screaming. They saw that I had followers behind me and young people supporting my cause. That was when the authorities, who were clearly outnumbered, decided to call it quits, that I was right and that all I wanted to do was work. It’s unfortunate but that’s the way it was. I won but I wonder what would have happened if I was an unknown. If instead of being an artist, I was a laborer,” says the urban musician.

An audition was finally scheduled for February 1. On that date he performed in front of a panel of judges as a solo singer from Cienfuego’s Rafael Lay orchestra.

“Five people decide whether I can sing or not. It makes no sense but I did get legal status. They filmed the recording session and they are now processing the paperwork at the Institute of Music in Havana. It then goes to Orlando Vistel for his signature,” says Laso.

“Today I want to thank all the friends and the media who supported me in demonstrating that there was a group of corrupt officials here. In the midst of my crusade, I had the honor of meeting Pablo Milanés* who told me, ’Fight, and when you get your work back, you will have to confront the things that are wrong, even if they don’t affect you.’ I was impressed, Pablo is a man who, when he is not happy with things, criticizes them publicly. He is a person who helps artists a lot, who supported my cause and was indignant at the injustice to which they subjected me,” he adds.

“First, with respect to my future work, I will rescue the word love but, once in awhile, I will shake things up. I will always tell the truth. Of course, if they want to censor me, I will continue the fight because I am no longer afraid. I have more than fifty reasons to tell anyone the truth to his face,” says the singer.

“I am an artist committed to the society in which I live. I will make songs but I will not remain silent while a bunch of scumbags damages the careers of other artists,” he adds.

“I solved part of the problem. Now I have to work to help my family but I will never forget the cause. I wanted to show that a citizen can take action and I did. And I am taking the opportunity to publicly promise that I will fight to end this fraudulent system of auditions, that my voice will be a constant call to abolish a bureaucracy whose only purpose is to sell paperwork, enrich dishonest officials and destroy the dream of a lot of young people,” he concludes.

*Translator’s note: One of Cuba’s most popular and famous singer/songwriters. Though a longtime a supporter of the Cuban revolution, in recent years Milanés has been publicly critical of it.

Former FARC Guerrillas to Train as Doctors and Journalists in Cuba / Juan Juan Almeida

Juan Juan Almeida, 17 March 2017 — From the very moment it gained power, the Cuban regime has devoted precious resources to exporting its ideology and cultivating followers. Overseas military conflicts as distant as those in Africa in the late 1970s and the guerrilla wars in Central America in the 1970s and 1980s relied on Cuban logistics and personnel. And just as it expressed solidarity by sending professionals from multiple disciplines to so-called Third World countries, so too has it brought professionals to the island for training throughout the years, generating a wellspring of sympathizers who feel a huge debt of gratitude.

As part of this successful experiment, there is now a new Cuban “solidarity” contribution to the peace process in Colombia. It was no coincidence that the island’s capital was the setting for the signing of the peace accord. continue reading

The Castro regime has instructed its ambassador in Bogota to announce that it is awarding up to one thousand scholarships to the demobilized members of the FARC guerrilla group and the victims of its armed conflict to study medicine in Cuba.

The communiqué notes that the 200 scholarships to be awarded annually over a five-year period — 100 for FARC soldiers and 100 for its executive council — will be Cuba’s contribution to the implementation of the peace accords reached in Havana and to a lasting peace in Columbia. Students may access their scholarships beginning in the 2017-2018 school year. The Cuban embassy will submit a document to the Columbian government and the FARC outlining the details which, even at the last minute, was still being finalized by Cuban authorities.

This “goodwill gesture” on Cuba’s part — a followup to the final resolution of the conflict — seems more about publicity than plausibility. The war went on for so many years that any attempt to avoid death and violence is noteworthy. Cuba wants not only to promote itself as a champion of peace in the region but also to profit from the naivety of some democratic voices who applaud any action that might help end the long conflict. But above all — and this is very important — it wants to influence the underdogs, the FARC, with aid and support in order to achieve a fundamental objective: to mask their image as crude terrorists by treating them as a legitimate political organization.

Let’s not forget that a significant portion of the two billion dollars that the FARC made from kidnapping and drug trafficking in its own country is now safely stashed away. Having been well laundered, it is used to buy sophisticated, modern equipment for humanitarian purposes at CIMEQ and the Cira Garcia Clinic.* Or it has been invested as Cuba’s contribution to joint venture projects that the government has with business consortiums and large hotel chains operating both inside and outside the country.

Cuban ambassador José Luis Ponce publicly announced the program alongside members of the CSIVI, the commission which oversees the implementation and verification of the peace accord. He addressed his remarks to FARC secretariat member Iván Márquez, who used his Twitter account to stress that “this contribution by Cuba to the implementation of the Havana Agreement and to the postwar period in Colombia is a pure humanitarian gesture.”

Curiously, Piedad Córdoba — a Columbian attorney, politician and leader of the Citizen Power XXI Century movement — used her own Twitter account minutes later to state, “In spite of being under embargo, Cuba not only has the best medicine in the world, it is also among the most supportive.”

Such Twitter coincidences are not exactly a fitting prelude to support for the end of the conflict. Why don’t any of the parties involved mention that, in addition to the one-thousand scholarships to study medicine, the Cuban government is offering as many as five-hundred scholarships to study journalism on the island?

Cuba is well-known for the high-quality training it provides to its health care professionals as well as for the benefits it receives from its program of exporting doctors.

This lab coat diplomacy, which includes training foreigners on the island to be physicians, currently generates more income than tourism, family remittances, nickel or sugar.

Besides operating a well-oiled financial machine, the Cuban government’s main goal is to create an army of grateful people, spread across the globe, who are influential in the social circles. They remain committed and invisible, ever ready to take immediate action in support of medicine and the Cuban revolution.

Let us take this to the exercise of journalism, taking into account the fluidity, or freedom of information that exists today in the world, where even some democratic governments are becoming more and more controlling. A host of indoctrinated journalists is a weapon of significant influence and an effective tool for spreading ideas and ideologies.

*Translator’s note: The hospital and clinic mentioned here were established to treat foreigners and foreign dignitaries as well as members of the Cuban government, the military and their families. Their facilities, equipment and provisions are known for being of a much higher quality than those for ordinary Cubans.

Raul Castro Modifies His Brother’s Orders / Juan Juan Almeida

Fidel Castro and Raul Castro in their “younger” years.

Juan Juan Almeida, 27 March 2017 — At age 85, infirm, and ten months from his much trumpeted retirement, Raul Castro directs the Minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces to modify Order Number One of the deceased Commander in Chief.

According to an unexpectedly transparent account from a corpulent and not very young Cuban official, “Cuba has a rusty army that, taking into account all its forces — land, sea and air — as well as reservists, exceeds 700,000 troops [in a country of just over 11 million people]. Every unit, regiment or battalion chief dictates an Order One, that rules the behavior of the men under his command.

“For his part, the Commander in Chief, which in Cuba is the same person as the head of state, decrees an Order One, that governs the conduct of the members of all institutions, be they military or not, charged with the defense and security of the state.

“To violate this precept, as many of us know, could be considered an act of high treason and imply a penalty that ranges from a warning to the death penalty. It is so stipulated in martial law. continue reading

“But Fidel is water under the bridge, he’s dead, and although Raul has chosen not to call himself Commander in Chief out of respect for the memory of the leader of the Cuban Revolution, the reality is that when he inherited the post of head of state, he also inherited that ’honorific rank.’ So now, that he is the Commander in Chief should he change the Order? Not necessarily.”

“The Order One,” he continues, “obliges all the military, among other things, not to have relations with foreigners, counterrevolutionaries or emigres, and to endure with stoicism the rigors of service. That has to change, not because the Commander died, it is transformed because the operative situation changed, the world scenario and the sociopolitical conditions of Cuba.

“We see,” he reflects, “Today, there are fewer trees among the so-called Amazons, family and friends of Cuban leaders, officials, military and revolutionaries living outside this country. Some are coming back,that’s great; but it is not fair, nor ethical, nor moral, that so long as it is forbidden for many, some, I among them, have an exemption to engage with our exiled relatives, which, to a large extent, I must admit, left because of us. That is why the law changes, by the force that, with great dignity, some officers are doing that which we don’t want to call attention to.”

“The other reason is more obvious,” he adds. “At the time that mandate arose, back in the 60s, there was no economic conglomerate of Cuban soldiers with the force today held by the military run GAESA Group (Business Administration Group SA).  The negotiations of this group, or of the Universal Stores, the Mariel Special Economic Zone, or ANTEX, ALMEST, GEOCUBA, GAVIOTA, TECNOTEX, any of the 57 companies owned by the Armed Forces or other civilian companies run by the military are carried out with foreigners, or with emigrant Cubans who now reside abroad. The order fell into obscurity, so that, following it closely, even Luis Alberto Rodríguez Lopez-Callejas [Raul Castro’s son-in-law] should be tried, and sentenced to life imprisonment for violating the regulations.”

“We have to change things,” he tells me like a punch line, “but modifying Order One is only one part of an integrated agenda that includes repealing outdated laws and instituting others that don’t hinder the transition to a more democratic, more participate and open society, without abandoning our principles.”

Task for Alejandro Castro: Protecting Cuba’s Disabled / Juan Juan Almeida

Raul Castro’s son Alejandro Castro Espín.

Juan Juan Almeida, 22 March 2017 — On March 17 of this year, a group of NGO (non-governmental organization) representatives from Latin America and the Caribbean celebrated in Havana Cuba’s political agenda in support of people with disabilities of every kind.  The next day, for the twentieth time, Cuban institutions honored the legacy of Terry Fox by encouraging people to join in the traditional marathon.  It is interesting that, although the Cuban State and constitution guarantee the right to free education without discrimination, there are neither an educational policy nor laws designed to protect people with different abilities.

According to official figures, approximately 3% of the Cuban population lives with some limitation that keeps them from participating in the labor market, and as a result, they cannot access the funds to confront the many obstacles they face in life. continue reading

The present legislation regarding this issue is very clear, but not all people with limitations possesses “special protection” status. In order to prove need, a disabled person needs to be in a situation of vulnerability or of economic dependence.

There is a logical explanation: having a deficiency is not synonymous with being vulnerable.  There are many types of disabilities: physical, mental, motor, and even sensory, and not all necessarily make a person incapable of work. However, in the particular circumstances of the island of Cuba, this justification is very unjust. There is nobody legally responsible for determining or regulating, according to whatever conditions are established, exactly when a disabled person is considered deserving of being included in, or excluded from, “special protection.”  As a result, this right is being denied to all people with hinderances.

Furthermore, we should not forget that any individual receiving subsidies from social security for labor disability continues to be economically dependent.  Simply getting a pension should not disqualify one from “special protection” status. It is not a mathematical equation, but rather question of applying formulas to the present reality in order to be efficient and achieve the greatest social benefit.  What products or services are available to a person who receives 150 Cuban pesos a month (about $6 US)?

I suffer from a disease that, without the right treatment, makes it impossible for me to do certain things.  I speak from the knowledge of personal experience:  I know that Cuban associations for the physical-motor disabled, and for the visually or hearing impaired, such as ACLIFIM. ANSI, and ANSOC, work for the equal rights of people with handicaps, for recognition of their dignity, autonomy and social and community integration.  This, however, is pure publicity, because as long as the Government does not push for a real legal policy designed to stop us seeing disability as disease, they will not begin to tackle this controversial issue from a more inclusive and less discriminatory social perspective.

Perhaps, as Mariela Castro did for the LGBTI community, her brother Alejandro Castro Espín, known for having a visual impairment, should lead a campaign for the respect of equality and the rights of people with disabilities.  But, of course, the masses of handicapped, with shameful frequency, fail to be a priority for a “great leader” who has been held up as champion of human rights.

Translated by Claire Huttlinger

Grow Food In Caves: The Latest Brainwave From The Ministry Of Agriculture In Cuba / Juan Juan Almeida

Juan Juan Almeida, 16 March 2017 — Specialists from MINAGRI, the Cuban Ministry of Agriculture, tell us that planting seeds inside or near to the Cuban cave network could quickly guarantee food production, which would help to satisfy the ever-increasing requirements of the Cuban population.

Another insane initiative, launched by the Ministry of agriculture, focuses on sustainable solutions to environmental problems, optimising energy and water, improving productivity, and using human waste as compost.

It is not a new idea. Millions of years ago man took advantage of the humidity in caves and their surroundings. How is it possible that today, in the 21st century, the Cuban government is trying to return to the agriculture of the cavemen?

The insane move, which includes training and the creation of laboratories for studying the quality of water in each cave area of the island, emerged as a response to a presumptuous and pushy ministerial debate on the use of water in agriculture that took place last February, where Inés María Chapman, President of the National Institute of Hydraulic Resources spoke about the serious situation regarding this natural resource, and Norberto Espinosa Carro, director of the Livestock Business Group, discussed the development programme being undertaken in the middle of straitened economic circumstances.

Anyone traveling to Cuba, even as a tourist, will know that the island has one of the largest cave systems in the world, 70 per cent of its territory, with the exception of Las Tunas, is composed of limestone and calcareous rock, natural phenomenon that leads to the formation of caverns. I doubt that farmers want to return to the caves, or that the MINAGRI can guarantee an underground irrigation system when, over more than 50 years, it hasn’t been able to guarantee even one-third of the national food requirement on fertile ground.

“It is called permaculture and it is a fashionable nonsense brought here by this new Minister from his trip to Europe. And that is exactly one of our biggest problems, the lack of organization, and Ministerial fantasies”, as we are told by one of the managers of the Institute of Agricultural Engineering Research.

“In Cuba”, he concludes, “the problem is not the water or moisture, but the poor support for the beneficial owner of the UBPC Cooperative, the absence of liquidity, the poor utilization of agricultural land, the very bad selection of water sources used for irrigation and drainage, the thousand and one legal restrictions which prevent farmers enjoying a better life, such as building their own home on the land where they work, the poor livestock management and shortage of cattle feed, the shortage of manpower and technically-qualified personnel, the scarcity of supplies and tools, the unavailability of machinery to prepare the soil, the lack of spare parts in the areas where they work,  the deficit of qualified technical staff and work force, the lack of inputs and tools, the non-availability of machinery for the preparation of the land, the lack of spare parts, and the long-running errors in allocating transport for agricultural marketing.  That’s all”

Translated by GH

Cuba’s Children of Power Take Possession / Juan Juan Almeida

Perla Rosa Rosales Aguirreurreta, newly appointed Havana Historian

Juan Juan Almeida, 13 March 2017 — The appointment of architect Perla Rosa Rosales Aguirreurreta to succeed historian Eusebio Leal as head of Havana’s Office of the Historian is the most recent example of the Cuban regime’s making strategic decisions whose sole purpose is to implement a very well-organized dynastic succession plan.

In order to further strengthen their hold on every corner of the country, family members of high-ranking military officials and leaders of the Cuban Revolution are inheriting key posts and strategic positions in the political power structure controlled by the Castro family.

For example, Fidel Castro Díaz-Balart, eldest child of the late Fidel Castro, is scientific advisor to his uncle, General Raúl Castro. The general’s daughter, Mariela Castro Espín, is president of the National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX) and a deputy in the National Assembly of People’s Power, the country’s unicameral parliament and supreme body of state power. continue reading

Alejandro Castro Espín, youngest child of Raúl Castro, is an advisor to the National Commission for Defense and National Security.

Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Calleja — former son-in-law of Raúl Castro and father of two of the general’s grandchildren — is CEO of the Business Administration Group and head of the Revolutionary Armed Forces Department V.

Rodrigo Malmierca Díaz — the son of Isidoro Malmierca Peoli, who was Minister of Foreign Affairs — is the Minister of Foreign Trade and Foreign Investment in Cuba.

Ernesto Daniel Plasencia — son of Colonel Santiago Plasencia and close friend of Raúl Castro — is a diplomat who recently concluded a stint as the Cuban ambassador to Qatar.

Leopoldo Cintra González — son of Army General and Revolutionary Armed Forces Minister Leopoldo Cintras Frías — is the commercial vice-president of the Habanos Corporation.

Listing every member of this fraternity would be impossible. However, the case of Rosales Aguirreurreta — daughter of General Ulises Rosales del Toro, vice-president of the Council of Ministers, founder of the Communist Party of Cuba and member of the Politburo — stands out not only for being the most recent example but also for being among the most significant.

It seemed at first that the Office of the Historian would be exempt from the hostile and ruthless takeover of Habanaguanex and Havana’s historic city center by the Cuban military.*

But the distrustful people who control the reigns of power in the country leave nothing to chance.

The talented and very hard-working Leal, who was recently awarded an honorary doctorate by Mexico’s Casa Lamm, held an enviable position which has now been turned over to the daughter of one of the dictatorship’s longtime generals. She is a successor with strong genetic ties to both the party and military.

At this point it is worth remembering that in December 1988 a trilateral accord was signed between Angola, South Africa and Cuba in which all parties agreed  to accept Namibian independence, recognize South Africa, halt support to the UNITA rebels and pull Cuban troops out of Angola.

Three days later, General Rosales del Toro, a career military officer — one unsuited to his career — who was not convinced of the effectiveness of dialogue to achieve reliable results, took a proposal back to Cuba that called for negotiations with the United States and an end to years of hostility. Instead of receiving a response, he was ordered under pressure to preside over the 1989 military trial of General Arnaldo Ochoa.**

“Perla, who is also known by a pseudonym I shouldn’t repeat, studied in the former Soviet Union and spent time working there. She started off in the investment department and moved up the ladder until she evenutally became deputy director. When Leal fell ill, she automatically took over,” says a longtime restorer from the Office of the Historian who, for obvious reasons, prefers to remain anonymous.

“She appears to be a woman who is prepared. But she doesn’t travel alone. A few days ago, we had an emergency meeting in which we were introduced to a new twenty-something Perla: a civil engineer who is Perla’s daughter and General Rosales’ granddaughter. It seems, so we were told, that she is a very intelligent young woman who is emerging as another future head of this institution, which already practically levitates on a kind of forgetfulness,” says the worker in an observation that mixes jest and resignation.

*Translator’s note: The Office of the Historian is a governmental agency dedicated to the preservation of historic buildings in Old Havana, several of them now profitable tourist hotels. In 2016 the agency and its restored properties were taken over by Habaguanex, a hotel chain company operated by the Cuban military, in what some saw as a hostile land grab.

**Arnaldo T. Ochoa Sánchez was a prominent Cuban general who was executed by the government of Fidel Castro after being found guilty of a variety of crimes including drug smuggling and treason.

Eight Truths About Cuba That the Bikini-Clad Girls Don’t Know / Juan Juan Almeida

Juan Juan Almeida, 4 March 2017 — Another crazy initiative…a bit picturesque, perhaps interesting, but totally absurd. Representatives of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) arrive at the José Martí Airport in Havana with the express intention of combatting animal abuse and creating vegetarian habits on the Island.

The idea of watching young activists dressed in lettuce leaves attached to green bikinis makes for an attractive attention-getter–and it surprisingly reveals the enormous ignorance of many about Cuban history, politics, culture, laws, and society.

Perhaps the authorities, as part of a “considered” neo-diplomacy, allows these young ladies to promenade with gossamer lightness through Old Havana, dispensing souvenirs, feeding homeless dogs, or handing out introductory pamphlets on vegetarianism with recipes for beans and rice. But there exists, and it is good to know this, (1) a cautionary, provincial ordinance that more or less says the following: Anyone who publicly goes around the Cuban capital dressed in swimwear, even when we all know that it is a coastal city, commits a violation and could be fined. continue reading

Regarding beef, somebody should explain to the PETA activists that, ever since July 12, 1963–creation date of the sadly famous OFICODAS (Offices of Food Control and Distribution)–(2) Cubans have been forced to exchange beef for chicken, ‘hotdogs’ and/or fish [see (4) below, there is no fish], depending on which series is listed on the ration booklet.

In the greatest of the Greater Antilles, (3) there is as much beef consumed as in India, where cows are considered sacred. And, besides the facts that Cuba is (4) the only island in the world whose diet does not feature fish and that Cubans born in that time euphemistically called the Special Period (5) grew up without a culture of beef consumption, (6) one pound of vegetables, in the agricultural market, competes with pork in terms of price.

It would be useful to know who will offer lettuce to these young lovelies because, even though Raúl Castro in 2008 started leasing out 1.7 hectares of land in usufruct for agricultural use, (7) Cuba still imports more than 63% of the food it consumes and the (8) fresh lettuce offered in the restaurants of tourist hotels is not cultivated on the Island.

A misguided plan which, save for the level of risk, is very similar to that of the Bolivian President Evo Morales Ayma–who even knowing the fate of his ex-comrade and mentor, the Venezuelan Hugo Chávez–still decided to travel to Havana this past 1 March to receive urgent medical care in Cuba.

The principal enemy of people who waste time creating publicity stunts is common sense. Now is the time for momentum, determination, and awareness-raising about real matters, such as the disturbing rise in the crime rate, gender-based violence, and the innumerable cases of domestic violence. To name just a notable few.

Translated by Alicia Barraqué Ellison

Cuba: Directives for Cyber-offensive from the Ministry of Public Health / Juan Juan Almeida

Juan Juan Almeida, 15 March 2017 — The Cuban government is preparing an insightful cyber-offensive and to do so plans to increase the army of cyber-combatants where, in addition to the well-known guerrillas of cyberspace — that is the students at the University of Information Sciences and the pro-government bloggers — they will add to this new attack all the professionals and staff of the health services. Doctors, specialists, graduates, nurses, health technicians, radiologists, physiotherapists and the rest of the staff that deals with all types of health services and management inside and outside of Cuba.

To this end, they have issued a resolution dated January 31 and signed by Alfredo Rodriguez Dias, Director of Information Technology and Communications of the Cuban Ministry of Public Health (MINSAP). continue reading

In this document you can read, and I quote:

“At present, the use and presence of social networks has become a fundamental factor in the process of socialization, exchange and dissemination of our achievements, our results. Also it has become a symbol of belonging and sites where people and businesses share interests in common such as the news, images, and music among others.

“It is a new space of combat, where the spreading of news happens at great speed with the reach and impact that other means do not have.

“A global university where information is a decisive recourse in the political struggle, and becomes a matter of national security and it is necessary that to achieve a competitive advantage in these spaces to give visibility and credibility to our points of view and our values.

“They constitute privileged channels for the information offensive, counterattack campaigns and to construct alternatives for political expansion and to offer a unprecedented opportunity to activate and multiply the power of the Revolution.

“It is the mission of the activists and cyber combatants to be alert to the spread of news that could affect the Revolution and others that lie about it and denigrate it, so it is NOT prohibited to visit these counterrevolutionary sites, niches where the opportunists are entrenched to wage battle in the Social Networks.

“It is good to know what they are saying, how they think and how the enemy acts in order to be able to combat it. We know that lies are posted there; but there are also truths and we have to know their weaknesses to be able to fight them and where we still have failures. We do not have to fear knowing where we have cancer to be able to fight and eliminate it.”

The document in question includes a list of objectives that are listed under the honorable title of cyber-enemies, and there we find 14ymedio, Cubaenmiami, El Nuevo Herald, Caféfuerte.com, yusnaby.com, Cubanet, Martinoticias y Diariodecuba; and an extensive list of electronic addresses. Almost all well-known.

All this framework, this sniffing around the networks, is a common practice, so it should come as no surprise. The subversive if the maneuver.

Rio Mar, a Restaurant Under Surveillance by Alejandro Castro / Juan Juan Almeida

Juan Juan Almeida, 28 February 2017 — An unusual combination of powerful forces has conspired to put Río Mar, a privately owned restaurant, in the defendant’s dock. Who has broken the rules this time?

Río Mar occupies an enviable location on the western bank and at the mouth of the Almendares River, right across from the former St. Dorothy of the Moon of Chorrera Fort, erected in 1646, which currently houses the Mesón de la Chorrera. This small detail gives you some idea of the cost that comes from having a pedigree like the owners: the stigmatized and closely watched family of former military men, Antonio and Patricio de La Guardia, who were convicted in 1989.* continue reading

Located on Third Avenue between C Street and Final Street in the Miramar district, Río Mar has become a favorite of local and international customers who consider it one of the best of its kind in Cuba. Opened in 2012, the restaurant maintains an unbeatable offering that combines gastronomic quality, superb service and a delightful environment in just the right amount. It also offers a fabulous view of Havana and its seaside promenade.

In this case, it is not the total subordination to military authority that exists on the island that is so troubling. Rather it is the astonishingly placid acceptance of how the judicial and legislative branches serve as a private law firm for the executive — a branch which in Cuba is synonymous with the Castros — and how this hinders the performance of the private sector and society as a whole.

Neighbors indicate that Río Mar is not violating rules covering legal hours of operation for this type of business or regulations governing noise levels. It cannot be accused of fraudulently transferring ownership because the building has always been in the family. Instead, sources close to the investigation indicate the business’s problem is not with the agency that regulates all private-sector work, nor with the courts, nor with the police, much less with the Provincial Administrative Council.

The investigation was launched by the Committee for Defense and National Security** — an unsettling and highly visible organization with no legal standing — and ordered by the office of the Attorney General of the Republic of Cuba. This office was set up to oversee the organs of government, administer state assets, and prevent and prosecute administrative corruption, not to waste its resources investigating small privately owned businesses.

“It’s really despicable. Look, I’m not an inspector or an owner. I don’t have access to the information the comptroller has… not by a long shot. The only information I have is from working in this restaurant and that tells me they are not doing anything illegal here. They obey all the self-employment regulations because they know better than anyone that their surname constantly keeps them under the watchful eyes of the government and its henchmen,” says an employee with real bitterness.

Translator’s notes:

*Tony de la Guardia was a colonel in the Cuban Interior Ministry who was executed after being convicted of cocaine trafficking. His twin brother Patricio was sentenced to thirty years in prison.

** In a previous post, the author described the Committee for Defense and National Security, an organization headed by General Raúl Castro’s son Alejandro, as an unofficial agency unrecognized by the Cuban constitution but which nonetheless plays a role in government.

The Useless Exercise of Rendering Accounts in Cuba / Juan Juan Almeida

Juan Juan Almeida, 7 March 2017 — The days of the anachronistic “process of rendering accounts” are approaching. This is period known as the genuine exercise of socialist democracy because they are neighborhood meetings in which the people and the leadership (at the base) exchange opinions about the main problems that afflict each community, and it is odd that today, although the circus rounds have not yet begun, Cuban leaders, as if they were master seers, already have on the table an eight page document issued by the department charged with compiling popular opinion, which for more than a month have included the approaches that the voters will take in each one of the assemblies.

An irony that, with a capital “I”, escapes any expression of the logic and respect of the citizenry. Since the end of January the Cuban government knows that for the coming months — April and May — the voters will express their dissatisfaction with the water supply, the sewers in the streets, the failures in communications and public transport, social security, the retirement age, the indiscipline on the roads, the occupation and powers of their elected delgate, the need to separate some functions that today belong to the state, the irregularity of trash collection and repair of the roads and principle arterials. continue reading

We will have to wait. Certainly, no one will talk about individual rights nor civil liberties. It seems that to govern is to assume contrdictions. It is a vulgar script for a discordant dramaturgy where fiction predominated. It is ridiculous to accept that, for example, in terms of health, in each locality, throughout the island, the assembled citizens will feel the “spontaneous” need to express opinions only on how to reduce teen pregnancy, and to strengthen control over pregnant women who go into maternity homes.

The most striking feature of this document is the prediction it makes about a group of citizens who, voluntarily, will express concern about the issue of domestic violence and, in particular, the phenomenon that doesn’t appear in the current penal code as a criminal figure and that begins to gain space as antisocial conduct. Cases of Cuban fathers who don’t conform to the role of the divorced, and kidnap their kids to hurt their former wives.

It is not divination, it is simple state inefficiency very eary to predict because yesterday’s problems were never solved and are the same ones that will be there tomorrow.

Almost all of the deputies to the Peoples Power Assembly session, be they national, provincial or municipal, are fed up and exceedingly apathetic, along with the compulsion, attend to kill time and eat the snacks; listen to the pre-prepared program, vote in favor of everything and reaffirm their commitment with something that they neither understand no care about.

Cubans who want to debate and express opinions, suggestions and demands; but they know well that in Cuba, the Peoples Power is the power of an entelechy.

An Illegal Business Operating Under Protection of the Castro Name / Juan Juan Almeida

Juan Juan Almeida, 9 February 2017  — In Cuba being a member of the Castro family is like having a modern-day license to commit  piracy. This inalienable right comes in handy for the dynasty’s descendants, especially those born with the compound surnames Castro Soto del Valle and Castro Espín.* The most recent example of the prerogatives that come from sharing a pedigree with the royal family of Cuba is a private business in Havana’s exclusive Miramar district run by Sandro Castro Arteaga.

In addition to being a well-known DJ, the young man is the son of Alexis Castro Soto del Valle and grandson of the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro. In the midst of a campaign against drugs, prostitution and fraud, the capital’s municipal government “temporarily” suspended the issuance of licenses for new privately owned restaurants on September 16, 2016. Yet in that same month it ignored directives from Isabel Hamze, acting vice-president of the Provincial Administrative Council, and issued a permit for a new bar and restaurant to be operated by Sandro. continue reading

Located at the intersection of 7th Avenue and 70th Street in Miramar, the former Italian restaurant is now a fashionable discotheque, a place where an elite young crowd enjoys Havana’s nightlife with no concern for the hour of day, the day of the month, or how much alcohol or other substances are consumed. The establishment, which reserves the right to admit whomever it chooses, has a maximum legal occupancy of ninety people, far beyond the limit set by law for seats in private restaurants.

The restaurant sector grew out of a governmental self-employment initiative known as cuentapropismo, which was an intended as a palliative solution to families’ economic problems. As a result, there are now more than 1,700 private restaurants throughout the island. These small businesses have benefitted from Raul Castro’s modest reforms, the noticeable boom in tourism and the rapprochement with the United States.

“If you like what’s cool, what’s exclusive, and you like rubbing elbows with celebrities, Fantasy has what you’re looking for. It offers different environments, good music and a demanding clientele. The interiors aren’t anything great but it’s the perfect place to organize an event. Once inside, you are protected while at the same time you are beyond the law. It’s heaven for party-goers,” says a young regular. “In a country where everything is controlled, it’s uncontrolled,” he adds.

Another Cuban youth, who lives in Miami but was recently visiting the island, says he has been to the discotheque a couple of times and claims that the requirement for getting in is “looking like you have enough dollars to pay. If not, you are not well received.”

“You have to make a reservation beforehand but, if someone gets there and offers them more money, you run the risk of losing your table. Individual drinks cost an average three or four dollars and a bottle can go for as much as eighty-five dollars,” adds the young visitor from Miami.

Faced with such blatant chicanery, Havana started reissuing licenses for new private restaurants on October 24, although it continues to warn owners that they must comply with regulations on noise and closing times (3:00 AM) as well as prohibitions against hiring artists, on the consumption and sale of drugs, and on prostitution and pimping.

It also announced that there would be routine quarterly inspections of new and established businesses in which “different factors” — a euphemism for the regime’s various agencies of repression — would oversee compliance with regulations. It also set up groups in every region to monitor this new form on non-governmental management.

But Fantasy manages to evade any oversight. It defies easy categorization. By day it is a pizzeria and by night a nightclub. This combination leads to a certain “ambiguity” in terms of its actual use and purpose.

“Where the captain rules, the soldiers have no say. No one can go against the son of Alexis Castro Soto del Valle. It’s a scandal; it’s unbearable. They play music at full volume. Boys come and get into fist fights. Trucks make deliveries at all hours of the day and night. The police are here but they don’t do anything. Miramar is a residential area. We have sent a ton of letters complaining to authorities but they  don’t dare take any action. Sandro is one of Fidel’s grandsons and that’s all that matters,” says a neighbor who, like others, prefers to remain anonymous.

 *Translator’s note: A reference to the children of Fidel and Raul Castro respectively.

Cuban Double Agent Fears for His Life after Revealing His True Identity / Juan Juan Almeida

Juan Juan Almeida, 27 February 2017 — Luis Enrique Cepero García was an opponent of the Cuban regime serving a sentence in the Combinado del Este prison when he decided to infect himself with a disease rather than continue being subjected to mistreatment in prison.

Given his state of health, Luis Enrique was transferred and imprisoned at the Pedro Kouri Institute of Tropical Medicine (IPK) in Havana where, on orders from a doctor, his life ended abruptly one day in 1995.

“I remember that before he died in the IPK, my brother Luis Enrique told me that a doctor told another doctor he would not be there the next day. My brother began to have some tremors. Then in the afternoon a nurse came into the room and began putting cotton in his nose, mouth and anus. My brother died and I was left with that image in my head.

“Then I did something I should never have done. To take revenge I joined the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) and pretended to be a revolutionary in order to get inside State Security and take my revenge for the death of my brother,” says William Cepero García, who today is a former spy living on Santa Maria del Rosario Road, kilometer 4.5, Cubicle #106, Cambúte, San Miguel del Padrón, a district located in the east of the Cuban capital.

When Luis Enrique died, William was living in Old Havana, buying and selling antiques. He started pretending to be a revolutionary. He says that, with his money and growing popularity, it was not difficult to attract the attention of the Cuban secret services.

“I started at the CDR… Well, you know how that works. In 2005 I was approached by officers from DTI (Technical Investigations Department) who wanted to recruit me. But I told them that, if I was going to do something for the Revolution, it had to be something big. It was then that I met an officer by the name of Yosbani, a young man from a Domestic Counterintelligence unit in Old Havana. He was the one who recruited me.”

I met the spy

“It’s all a surprise to me,” says Luz María Piloto Romero, a Cuban dissident who now lives in exile in Miami. “I met William Cepero García because he was living in Old Havana around the corner from my house. His brother, the one who died from HIV, was a good friend of mine. I always saw William at non-violent opposition events in support of human rights.”

Cepero García says that, after several exams and countless meetings at the Municipal Identity Card Directorate’s offices, he was instructed to collect information on people in the area who sympathized with opponents of the government.

“At first I was very frightened,” he admits. “I realized that the people I knew were innocent but, after a few months working as a spy, I determined that the information I was giving to my official contacts had already been given to them by other agents I did not know.”

Cepero García remembers being sent in 2005 to Cambute in San Miguel del Padrón, where there as an active opposition movement. He says that there he was part of a group under the direction of the local Domestic Counterintelligence office. He began trying to penetrate the Cuban Human Rights Foundation, an opposition organization then headed by Juan Antonio Bermúdez Toranza.

“I very cautiously tried to warn Juan. I didn’t know whether or not he was also a State Security agent and did not want to get burned. Everything here has been infiltrated,” he says.

But Bermúdez Toranza, who currently lives in exile in Spain, says, “William came out from the shadows. It was Juan Carlos who introduced him to me.”

He is referring to Juan Carlos González Leiva, a blind attorney, activist and founder of the Independent Blind Fraternity of Cuba and the Cuban Human Rights Foundation.

“William approached me offering to help. He was interested in my needs,” adds Bermúdez Toranza. “His help was economic. He was a guy who moved money around, dealing in antiques, jewelry and those sorts of things. But he was asking a lot of questions; he wanted to know everything. He never disagreed with any of my decisions and it isn’t normal to agree with everything. I never trusted him. I always compartmentalized with him because I suspected he was working for State Security.”

Two years later Bermúdez Toranzo was arrested and charged with counter-revolutionary activities. William left the area but returned in 2009 with a new mission. “Juan (Bermúdez Toranzo) was in jail and his then wife, Neris Castillo, was one of the Ladies in White, and my new mission was to insert myself in her life, get information on the Ladies in White, blackmail her and sleep with her… You know how these things go,” he says.

A female spy’s testimony 

“He told me he had come to carry out a task but he didn’t have the courage for it. He told me about his brother. I saw him trying to help young men who had decided to set out to sea and other people I can’t remember right now. That’s why I took him to what was then the US Interests Section in Cuba, to the human rights office, so he could provide information and decide whether to switch from one side to the other,” explains the former Lady in White, Neris Castillo Moreno, who is now Cepero García’s partner.

“He helped a lot of people. When my brother was taken prisoner, William helped him. After being in a jail myself for a week, there was nothing to eat at my house  and he said to me, ’Let’s go, Luz. I’ll fix you a sweet roll.’ And he did. I hope that all the people he once helped might now help him. Actually, I was surprised by the news,” says Luz María, a Cuban dissident who now lives in exile in Miami and says she knows Cepero Garcia.

According to Cepero García, his work as a double agent earned him enough credit with the regime’s intelligence agencies that they ended up giving him the mission to become the leader of the Republican Party of Cuba and later the secretary general of the November 30th Frank País Democratic Party after the death of the previous office holder.

However, after receiving a new mission from officials at Cuban State Security, which Cepero García had allegedly infiltrated years earlier, the self-described “double agent” decided to reveal his true identity and expose himself to the risks inherent in such a decision.

“I fear for my life but I am aware of what I have done. I have to face whatever comes.” And here his story ends.

Meanwhile, the exiled Cuban dissident living in Spain, who is familar with the spy’s performance in San Miguel del Padrón, insists that Cepero García’s true intention in making this revelation is to leave Cuba.

“What William wants is a visa to the United States. I know he is a spy and that he has regrets and that he helped people. But, look, if William is saying that, he is not doing it because he is in charge or because he wants to say it. He is saying it because someone is ordering him to do so. And I assure you it is someone in Section XXI (of G2, the Intelligence Directorate),” concludes Juan Antonio Bermúdez Toranzo categorically.

Dismantling One of Fidel’s Houses and Saying Goodbye to His Bodyguards / Juan Juan Almeida

Fidel Castro getting into a car, surrounded by bodyguards.

Juan Juan Almeida, 24 February 2017 — They are dismembering the security apparatus at the bunker that for years served as a spiritual refuge for Fidel Castro: an apartment located on the third floor of 1007 11th Street in Havana’s Vedado district.

Little by little they are removing pictures, gifts and belongings along with some trash. The metal security chain, floodlights and even the guard post that prevented citizens from moving freely along the length of the block where the building is located have already been removed.

More than fifty bodyguards have been retired, leaving only a small temporary garrison of five men and one police officer, Colonel Nivaldo Pérez Guerra. continue reading

Strategically located in District 13, a downtown neighborhood near the Plaza of the Revolution, the building in question was one of the former Cuban leader’s three official residences. Though he had not visited the place for several decades, it remained his legal residence from 1976 until the day he died.

These actions are, it seems, an attempt to remove any evidence that media outlets and Cubans themselves, who have an excessive propensity for constructing legends and creating myths, might use to craft a heroic saga out of the daily habits and lifestyle of the late commander-in-chief.

“Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. They are getting rid of anything with even a whiff of age. In the case of #11 (as the building is known), the country’s leaders have sent us a message: ’The options are total demolition or a complete remodeling of the place; if we leave it the way it is, it could awaken the interest of an avid array of gossip mongers; and, you guys, you are to be relocated,’” says one one disgruntled man, who for years belonged to the tight inner circle of security personnel guarding the late revolutionary leader.

“But they are not going to sack us,” he adds. “What they are doing is speeding up our retirement, which is not quite the same thing. At the same time that they are removing Fidel’s things from #11, they are sending us to Personal Security, over there in Jaimanitas, where they present retirement as compensation for a lifetime of loyal service. They are giving us a Chinese car that looks a new Geely model CK but which is actually a discontinued clunker, a used tourist rental car with a lot of miles on it.”

A disbanded and discontented elite military force can be a terribly bad omen for a society on fire.

One need only go to the parking area of the Hotel Melia Cohiba or Hotel Melia Havana and ask any of the former Cuban president’s various bodyguards where one might find a good botero (taxi driver).

They will tell you that a group of them, who are all now unemployed, are planning to regroup and apply for licenses to operate a privately owned cooperative offering security services to celebrities and fashionable artists visiting the country.

A good business, I would think. No one can deny that, when it comes to personal security, these men have plenty of experience.

Qatar Complains About Cuban Care Providers With HIV / Juan Juan Almeida

Juan Juan Almeida, 22 February 2017 — Qatar authorities presented an official complaint before Eumelio Caballero Rodríguez, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Cuba, because during the obligatory health exam of the Cuban health workers they detected some cases of Cuban doctors infected with HIV.

This was expressed in an email from the Embassy of Cuba in the State of Qatar, which landed like a tsunami in the office of the Minister of Public Health of Cuba. Here are a few fragments:

“Beginning now, all [Cuban] care providers who leave for Qatar must bring a certificate from the Provincial Center of Hygiene and Epidemiology that shows the results of an HIV test.” continue reading

“Urgent,” says the message. “These 15 cases listed here arrived in Qatar the past month of January without said document, and three of them tested positive in the required check for entry to the country, and now we are requesting an explanation for this.”

“Gentlemen,” continues the missive, “This must not happen again. It is required that you take disciplinary measures against the provinces of the implicated care providers.”

It should be pointed out that Qatar is a State mediator and negotiator in Middle Eastern conflicts, and its principal interest in Cuba is concentrated in medical services, considered the backbone of relations between both countries. This is why, in January of 2012, the Hospital of Dukhan was created, which today has more than 400 Cuban professionals, including doctors, nurses and technicians in the fields of rehabilitation, odontology, medical laboratories, bio-medicine and radiology.

Furthermore, the incident puts at risk the confidence of the Arab Emirates, which, with the third largest world reserve of natural gas and the largest income per capita on the planet, has shown interest, in addition to health, in exploring other spheres of business, for example: financing the extraction and commercialization of Cuban marble, the construction of five-star hotels on the island and the implementation of an airlines operation between Qatar Airways and Cubana de Aviación.

Of course, I’m convinced that we won’t read anything about this disagreeable incident, absolutely nothing, in the official Cuban press.

Translated by Regina Anavy

Cuban Doctors and Nurses in Exchange for Angolan Oil / Juan Juan Almeida

Juan Juan Almeida, 14 February 2017 — In a memorable address on December 18, 2008 in Salvador de Bahía, Brazil, Raúl Castro referred to what we now know as Operation Carlota, saying, “We told the Angolan people we will only take with us the remains of our dead.” But he lied.

The Cuban military mission there did some farming and planted a seed that is only now bearing fruit. Initially, the mission provided support, earning the regime international prestige and increasing its political capital. Witness for example, the vote against the US embargo in the United Nations’ General Assembly. Now, General Castro, who is also president of Cuba, is counting on a good harvest: Angolan oil. continue reading

Below are the names of thirty people who were flew on KLM or TAAG Angolan Airlines on January 26 of this year from Havana to Luanda with the express purpose of trading medical services for Angolan crude oil.

Mariluz Simales Cruz, nursing

Larisa Peña Roja, biology

Ángel Alexis Calas Ortiz, nursing

Isabel Chala Castaneda, MD, hygiene and epidemiology

Margarita Saltaren Cobas, nursing

Alfredo Saltaren Cobas, biological sciences

Erenis Serrat Morales, clinical laboratory

Jorge Luis Vargas Mendoza, hygiene and epidemiology

José Alexander Campos Castillo, pharmacy

Mario Oscar León Sánchez, comprehensive general medicine, intensive therapy

Eladia Cuenca Arce, clinical laboratory

Paula Pompa Márquez, microbiology

Isabel María Oliva Licea, transfusion medicine

Andrés Aguilar Charon, chemistry education

Dioenis de la Caridad Campoamor Hernández, health care technology

Martha Alfreda Zamora González, immunology

Agustín Rodríguez Soto, professor of stomatology

Geisy Pérez Pérez, nursing

Marlenis Sánchez Tuzón, MD, clinical laboratory

Lazara Josefina Linares Jiménez, clinical laboratory

Yunia Delgado Peña, nursing

María Libia Paneque Gamboa, professor, Uniología Institutos Médicos

Dimey Arguelles Toledo, nursing

Katiuska Garboza Savón, professor, clinical laboratory

Victoria Priscila Moreno Zambrano, clinical laboratory

Maria Cristina Varela Alejo, pharmacy

Gliceria Alicia Díaz Santa Cruz, health care technology

Dania Victoria Rodríguez Hidalgo, nursing

René Camacho Díaz, professor, maxillofacial surgery

Yaimy Royero Martínez, surgical nursing

“In politics, money talks. It has the first and the last word. The medical missions in Venezuela won’t be cancelled. Speculation is that the price of oil will rise and, if that happens, the income we receive from that program should also rise,” explains an official from the Cuban Ministry of Public Health who, as is always the case, fears government reprisal and prefers to remain anonymous and out of sight.

“The Angola mission,” he points out, “is a different sort of thing. They are not sending doctors to be doctors but rather to be instructors. They are going there to teach classes, not to see patients.

“This is predicted to be Cuba’s most profitable economic endeavor, more than tourism or remittances from overseas. We are talking about a massive shipment of doctors and other medical personnel as part of an exchange agreement that will guarantee favorable crude oil prices.

“Also, on January 12 a US government program, the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program, was cancelled, easing fears that our physicians will abandon their overseas missions.”