The Myth of Transition / Juan Juan Almeida

I often ask myself why we do not take a moment and dispassionately take note of the indications and evidence that, starting at the top, the Cuban government is trying to design the post-Castro future for us.

Not long ago General Raúl Castro organized meetings throughout the country at the neighborhood level and at places of work. People were asked to discuss their problems  at these events without fear.

The sense of catharsis these provided was important. People discussed their problems, though without seeing them resolved, and the government bought itself some time. As a result commissions were set up and plans were laid down.

Raúl Castro is a military man who retains a Cold War mentality. Before adopting a strategy, he creates commissions and studies every situation in detail before moving forward. Every demonstrable problem has three separate commissions studying it.

All this compartmentalization means deserters, critics, dissidents and the new public faces on political scene can, therefore, act only as reporters. They cannot speak of governmental plans or the future without venturing into the dangerous territory of speculation and error.

Even Miguel Díaz-Canel — first vice-president of Cuba and the person who, according to the current constitution, succeeds the president in the event of the latter’s absence, illness or death — criticized the restraints on the press during an address to the recent Ninth Congress of the Cuban Union of Journalists, but avoided making any commitments to eliminating them.

Personally, I consider Miguel to be an honest man, but he is an official puppet who is not part of the inner power circle. Therefore, he is not privy to what will happen tomorrow, or even in the next fifteen minutes.

The results of the recent elections and the inclusion of new faces in the Cuban government do not represent a significant change. It is a feeble attempt to promote the false image of a transition, a simulation which aims simply to appear pluralistic. Cuban elections are controlled voting procedures designed to obtain public approval of hand-picked candidates and to place civilian marionettes in government posts.

Ah, but might these people’s thinking boomerang, turning them into tomorrow’s faces of change? I think so, but I do not believe for a moment that during the initial phases of the long-awaited post-Castro era these people are capable of moving the foundations of government, changing the character of the judicial system or altering the solid chain of command that currently exists among the power elite and the military.

I presume that in time the eventual passing of the so-called historic leaders will allow for the emergence of new group who, once in power, will be more disposed or will feel obliged to implement truly democratic reforms.

The self-employment initiative — notice they never call it entrepreneurship so as to distance it from capitalism — was a masterful stroke. It showed a convenient — I would add apparent — path to a market economy. It also created hope in a wide segment of the population which looked towards micro-businesses as a way up. With any luck it would allow these people to ascend from the micro to the small, and from the medium to the macro.

But let us not kid ourselves. This is all a myth. The Cuban micro-business economy is one of tiny shops and subsistence. Instead of a stimulus policy, entrepreneurship is hampered. Profits made by the self-employed do not lead to prosperity because they cannot be reinvested; they can only be used to plug holes.

But every rule has its exceptions. There are private businesses with parallel, presumably illegal entrances which — along with a dangerous but necessary moneyed class of entrepreneurs and intellectuals — are tolerated and used to give society a timely touch of success and prosperity.

It is a well thought-out plan for governing. Pretend conditions are good, confuse everyone, and continue down the path that increasingly concentrates rights in the hands of the state rather than promoting a state of rights.

Photo: President Raúl Castro with First Vice-President Miguel Díaz-Canel.

21 August 2013

They Criticize Corruption and Traffic in Diamonds / Juan Juan Almeida

From the same instant in which General Raul Castro was enthroned as President, he hasn’t stopped warning that “The battle against crime and corruption has no room for doubt.” On many occasions he has been seen at the podium exhorting publicly the members of his cabinet to maintain an “implacable” conduct against the mentioned scourge.

It’s difficult to convince that popular body that for lack of confidence, without realizing it, passed from alarming sloth to heartless hibernation.

In order to execute his crusade and give veracity to his words, in the year 2009 he created the Controller General of the Republic of Cuba, an organ that until today has carried out audits on all the State institutions and brought before tribunals those accused of economic crimes and corruption, a good number of functionaries, employees and directors of state enterprises, an ex-minister and an ex-vice minister of the food industry, foreign businessmen, an ex-son-in-law of the above-mentioned General President and family members who, confused, wealthy or followers of a lucrative ideology, one day swore loyalty to the revolutionary process.

For some citizens, the General represents a Caribbean Grim Reaper with a collapsible neck, who, with an olive-green cowl and a scythe in his hand will put an end to the kleptocracy. “The struggle against corruption” is an epic banner that the First Secretary of the Communist Party decided to raise, and to hoist it more, he named as gonfalonieri his son the Colonel, a middle-aged man who is a specialist in judging everything and an expert in looking after personal objectives.

Certainly, the law is the only form of giving an effective and round answer to the problem of corruption; but sadly, the publicized content is one more myth, which isn’t precisely destined to eradicate the matter from the Cuban horizon, but rather will concentrate the country’s resources and total power of the State in the hands of the most corrupt, most restricted, most faithful, and even most compromised group belonging to the Castro Espin clan.

Why didn’t the General say anything when the Cuban government was discovered attempting to transport military materiel through the Panama Canal hidden under tons of sugar in a North Korean ship?

If this isn’t muddy, then there’s the possibility that before the unpolluted island ruler, neither was it corruption that a group of “cooperating Cubans” engaged in bringing in contraband diamonds from Ghana and Namibia to Havana, stones that later were sent by air to a beautiful port city in northeast Belgium, Amberes, casually known as the world center of diamond trafficking and commerce. How could that happen without the approval of the State that sees everything, like Big Brother?

I also recall very well that some years ago, in 1989, a group of high military officers were punished for similar acts. And look here, curiously, these trafficking specialists, whom the Cuban government feigns not to know, are all ex-military man and civil workers of the army that works for ANTEX S.A., an anonymous society of Cuban capital located on the African continent, with offices in Angola, whose initials mean strangely (and excuse me for the use and intentional abuse of these adverbs) the name of General ANTonio Enrique (Lusón) EXportations. A Raulista convert who not only is corrupt but also basks in it.

Translated by Regina Anavy

15 August 2013

Blood for Export /Juan Juan Almeida

I was born in the bosom of power, a world of abundant lies. I was reared and educated among the corrupt who, even as they pretended to be simple guardians of virtue, in certain private circles often forgot to guard their terrible secrets and told horrific stories with tremendous ease. This is how I heard in detail about those sentenced to death and their physical condition as they faced the firing squad. They described men who were drowsy, sweaty, weak, whose breathing was irregular and whose color was corpse-like.

At the time I did not realize and even questioned how much the terror, the trauma, the effects and consequences of the perverse path that the dark mechanism they call “revolution” can have on an individual or group. While it was logical to think that having the nerves to confront death could lead to a collective symptomology, my obtuse non-conformity compelled me to find an explanation. Asking questions, I discovered an explanation that was both simple and terrifying. Before being executed — as though that were not enough — the condemned had their blood extracted.

I know this is hard to believe. Therefore, I would like to add that there are confirmed accounts and important testimony on Archivo Cuba, the website of an organization which, for reasons unrelated to financial gain, has carried out a serious investigation on the subject and tried to document the deaths and disappearances of men — guilty or not — whose biographies remain inconclusive; men whose broken lives once had owners; men who even today await the trial that will vindicate them.

My motive for writing this is not to lodge an accusation, though clearly that is what this is. It is somewhat more. It is to alert readers, scholars, jurists and investigators to a nebulous, little-discussed  subject that remains shrouded in secrecy. And I am not referring to some clumsy foible but to evidence of criminal actions. Unless a document exists that shows the condemned agreed to these procedures, this constitutes a crime against humanity according to the International Criminal Court’s Rome Statute.

Fidel Castro publicly acknowledged these actions when, in a long-winded speech on February 6, 1961, he said — and I quote — “Don’t think that just because counter-revolutionaries die in disgrace before a firing squad they are not of use to the Cuban revolution. The blood of these traitors is extracted before execution in order to save the lives of the many militiamen ready to die for the Fatherland.”

But wait, there is more. All Cubans know that to be admitted to a hospital on the island — whether it be for a simple check-up or a surgical procedure — or to even see a doctor or staff member, one is required to show proof of having donated blood. Only then may the patient make use of the benefits of free hospital care in Cuba. In most cases this blood is turned into a commodity to be sold overseas without the knowledge or consent of the donors.

The story is as real as the missiles hidden in containers of sugar. Just a few days ago, before the conclusion of an official visit by President José Mujica to the largest country in the Caribbean, the newspaper El País de Uruguay reported that the leading export in 2012 from Cuba to the honorable Oriental Republic of Uruguay was human blood, the kind with a Cuban surname.

8 August 2013

Louis Vuitton in a Little Shop in Havana / Juan Juan Almeida

It’s been so long, I hardly remember when it was that I first heard the phrase “Social Division of Labor” as a concept. This describes the emergence and separation of different types of work in the same society.

A phenomenon that — according to the enlightened — helped to raise productivity, create private property and a society of classes. Masters and slaves, masters and servants, employers and employees.

All this happened naturally. Work originally began divided by sex or by age group. Then came the distance between farmers and herders, and later that of those who, without producing basic inputs, set out to build necessary things, indispensable tools and useful services. Then, to close that big business cycle, capable of linking producers and consumers, traders and/or merchants appeared.

Over the years, this same division separated the sectors of the economy (industry, construction, agriculture, transportation….) and production sectors such as light industry, machine building, metallurgy, horticulture, etc.

It seems to be a lie; but in today’s Cuba, the division of labor has been, little by little, responding to the same sequence so often repeated both in history. Election, inheritance, necessity, chance, permissibility, circumstances and fashion.

It is impossible to forget that for a long period of time, anyone who had a car, including myself, dreamed of being taxi drivers. Doctors, engineers, artists, lawyers, undertakers, officials, military, police or ambulance drivers. All, because get to a place where we can say, “I am private taxi driver,” was similar to shouting “I’m Napoleon and Josephine Bonaparte.”

Of course, things have changed and today, at least one’s dreams, the new Cuban aspiration is to buy cheap merchandise, set up shop and go on almost aristocratic national selling spree.

Houses, halls, corridors, rooms, garages, with a little imagination any space is transformed into a great commercial center.

Centro Habana, for example, is now more like the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul; too much merchandise for too few buyers.

In the former Monte Street there’s not a single bit of it that is uninhabited, counters everywhere (they call them showrooms), where you can buy cheap clothes (or brand knock-offs), toothpaste, tubing used, latte, or industrial talc.

Usually these places are supplied by the almost noble act of several battalions of children who dedicate themselves to stealing; state employees who cheerfully take up the art of official theft,  criminals who attack tourists, foreigners traveling to Cuba in plan to lower their costs, hundreds or thousands of Cubans who today form the new Spanish Legion; and let’s not forget hundreds of exiles that for politics (commercial) decided to emigrate and today remember the song “You have to get to school on time.”

Of course, every rule has its exception, there are also gentlemen entrepreneurs who subtly, like temptation, and soft as danzón, hit the target in Havana. On one side of the corner where Avenues and 41st and 42nd converge, in the municipality of Playa, there is more than stores, bridging the huge differences, a tendon stretched to Sarria-Sant Gervasi, the most chic neighborhood or district of Barcelona.

This unique little shop that to the eyes looks somewhat clumsy, hides Roberto Cavalli, Jimmy Shoo, Michael Kors, Louis Vuitton, and all the famous brands, as synonymous with exquisite taste and studied distinction, occupy high positions in the hit parade of national ready-to-wear.

And to find the truth, you have to increase creativity.

5 July 2013

Monument to My Father / Juan Juan Almeida

“No one surrenders here.”

With tremendous size and a weight of 15 tons, in Antonio Maceo Plaza in Santiago de Cuba, on the size wall of the Heredia Theater, this Tuesday the lights were turned on to inaugurate a steel frame that recreates the image of my father, Commander Juan Almeida Bosque. I think so much vanity generates ridicule, not respect.

It seemed shameful, like common thieves reuniting in the complicity of the night, for the event to be presided over by Commander Ramiro Valdés (member of the Politburo of the Communist Party of Cuba and the Vice President of the Council of States and Ministers), Lázaro Expósito (member of the Central Committee and First Secretary of the PCC in the province), local leaders and a small number of obedient family members who were selected not for love of the deceased but for their closeness to the office of General Raúl Castro.

Long before this inauguration, friends and the not-so-friendly, some to inform and others to annoy, sent videos me and photos via e-mail or social networks, of how it was being constructed and what this work of art would be.

I would like to thank each and every one of the people who worked on it, masons, builders, and those who kept me informed throughout the duration of the assembly. The painter, sculptor and designer Enrique Avila Gonzalez, author of this giant poster. I also thank the members of the musical groups invited, especially the magnificent interpretation of my father’s music by the young concert band from Santiago’s Esteban Salas Conservatory. Also the management of the theater for the piece of wall.

I know very well every stone of the Heredia theater, an important cultural center I watched be built and open its doors. On one occasion, cast in a team performing shows and with a little help, I managed, on the boards of Heredia, to realize an old dream, to be part of a tribute to my father. Music was his bliss, and what made him happy.

My father loved with devotion the great Oriente, Santiago de Cuba was his passion, and by association the Heredia theater was part of his avocation. Notwithstanding that I have always had a certain apprehension about the act, such as imposing an image on a people, without knowing in advance whether they agree or not. What I liked as a child is one thing, and it’s a very different thing not to respect the opinions of local residents. I can safely bet that nobody was consulted.

Some time ago I realized that everything in the world is relative, which for me is honor, for others it may be offensive. With some friends I share the indescribable rarity of having as a father a human who, rightly or wrongly, the government transformed into myth. It is difficult to accept, especially when the object to idealize, or hate, is simply someone you love.

For me, personally, this show provokes indignation, more from knowing that Raúl Castro collaborated in the death of my father with malice aforethought, ruthless deception which to my relief I discovered before he died. So if now the señor General, on going to sleep, feels one more ghost and wants to release one more piece of his questionable past, I tell him that my family, more than a sculptural relief, deserves to hear him ask forgiveness.  Me, no, I want to see him before a judge, to see him condemned.

30 July 2013

Sugar with Weapons and Hidden Truths

I wasn’t there, but then they told me and later I read that on July 11 the Panamanian authorities stopped a North Korean freighter sailing through the Caribbean to the Panama Canal. Bear with me, but I think that with that name (Chong Chon Gang) would have stopped anyone; knowing that today the infamous and raggedy boat had sailed from Cuba and its final destination, written on its “Road Map” (or the log of the sailing, according to the former inspectors of the whereabouts of the 32) was nowhere democratic and, much less popular, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The cargo found set off a huge diplomatic dust-up; and this, in turn, a genuine media orgy that flared up when a little more than 24 hours after the Panamanian announcement, the Cuban Foreign Ministry (MINREX) issued an official statement that tried to minimize the central fact using the hackneyed ploy of playing with the details, while North Korea maintained a kind of “silence” on the matter in which 35 of its citizens were detained at sea.

That Havana would hide its arsenal under tons of sugar, and they were sending them to Pyongyang to repair them there, is logically credible but leaves questions.

It’s normal that over some determined period of time, planes, radar systems, anti-aircraft missiles or some other military or civic equipment, requires repair or heavy-duty maintenance. But, in this particular case, and seeing as this equipment was made in Russia, the question would be, why didn’t they send them to Russia if — according to what I understand — Cuba and Moscow maintain and even nourish a fluid communication at the highest levels.

To save money. That could be an answer that too many seems likely and offers a certain credibility. It is known that Kim Jong-Un accepts barter and that, as a common practice, North Korea repairs and modernizes this type of equipment in exchange for Cuba’s sugar or Myanmar’s rice. However, we can’t forget that at the moment when the unsayable Chong Chon Gang was stopped, the military park in questions (the two missile complexes Volga and Pechora, the new missiles in parts and pieces, the two MIG-21 Bis planes and the 15 engines for this type of airplane — made in the middle of the last century — traveled hidden under 10,000 tons of sugar.

Some people, looking to be argumentative, allege that all these military goods were very well camouflaged because of the two United Nations Security Council resolutions that prohibit its member states from transferring to, supplying, and servicing arms for Pyongyang. I’m sorry to rain on their parade and that absurd justification; but if the Island’s government (respectful like so much cackling about its commitments to peace, disarmament and respect for international law) would like to send its deadly toys to North Korean to be repaired there and then to be returned, all they have do to is to apply for the required permission from the commission that oversees that sanction in the Security Council.

All of which leads me to think that among those sacks of sugar, more than weapons, hidden truths were traveling, that were neither going to North Korea nor even thinking about coming back.

26 July 2013

Everything Ready for Fidel Castro’s Funeral / Juan Juan Almeida

A group of Cuban-American congressional representatives has formally requested that Washington deny a visa to Fidel Castro’s heir, Antonio Castro Soto del Valle. Rather than being concerned about the son’s entry to the United States, the island’s government seems more focused on his father’s exit from this world.

Yes, the father’s farewell. The former Commander-in-Chief’s curious fascination with death and funerary trappings has reached such a level of outrageousness that some time ago he ordered the creation of a special commission (obviously headed by himself) to organize and supervise the perfect execution of what will be his funeral.

Though only in the planning stage, this adiós is already enough to satisfy the voracious appetite of even Francois Rabelais’ fictional giant, Pantagruel. Communism’s dying superstar loves to compartmentalize. As a security measure the various parties involved have not yet been allowed to meet to design what the deceased-to-be foresees as a ceremony replete with the solemnity and precision of a Swiss watch.

The key military component seems more than ready. The same goes for the twenty-one gun salute, the eulogies, the mournful ceremony, and the band fully outfitted with conductor and musicians, some of whom will be dressed in black while others will be in military fatigues.

Of course, as in any other official parade, popular participation will be obligatory and massive. On this occasion, however, there is sure to be a formidable contingent of mimes serving as portrait bearers, mourners and weepers who, between sobs, will be sure to spontaneously chant the characteristic slogans we must not forget. These include: Cuba yes, Yankees no; Long live Fidel; Fatherland or death; Socialism or death; The ten million will…* no, sorry, probably not that one.

To avoid surprises and keep the machine well-oiled, the Ministry of the Interior, the Revolutionary Armed Forces and the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution regularly review two chapters of a plan whose titles share a certain association with combat missions: “Actions to Safeguard the Physical Integrity of the Nation” and “Preserving Order.”

The author of Reflections has expended so much energy on this mega madness — one we hope will be his last — that Saturday, July 13 and today, Monday, July 14 he attempted to immortalize the spot once used as his speaking platform by closing the entrances to the José Martí Memorial in the Plaza of the Revolution to the public to carry out a pair of rehearsals for the Pharaonic entombment. This was done in spite of the fact that children’s activities had previously been scheduled to take place there the entire summer. In addition to reviewing details for the ill-fated ceremony, the not-yet-deceased sought to analyze, select and personally authorize the various pieces of film footage on his life and work to be broadcast on Cuban television during the period of national mourning.

What remains unclear is the proximity of the guests to the coffin. Every time there is a new rehearsal, he changes the arrangement — crowned heads, heads of state and heads of government — breaking all the rules of protocol, making adjustments based solely on the way that, according to the prophet, each will behave.

The gentleman designated to carry out the plan noted in a jocular and somewhat theatrical way that so much of the decision-making has been concentrated in the hands of the soon-to-be deceased himself that it was hindering his ability to respond to changes which — due to paranoia, superstition, belief or bi-polar disorder — have evolved from embalming to burial to that Olympian bonfire, cremation.

*Translator’s note: The Harvest of Ten Million was a failed 1970 campaign which marshalled all the island’s resources in an effort to produce ten million tons of sugar.

19 July 2013

Raul Prepares His Retirement / Juan Juan Almeida

We are living in a world where, dangerously, what’s important for the work of many is just to show results. Perhaps for that reason, for nostalgia, convenience, desire, hope, belief, deception or passion; we make the mistake of looking to Havana and distorting the reality, imagining the Cuban government as a bankrupt controlling consortium.

Sorry, but much to my regret, impartially, things don’t appear the same. The government was reorganized, continuing to take well-aimed steps toward their new legitimacy, and the ruling elite gathers strength obscuring people who have proven to be loyal and capable of obeying every order, including confessing to homicides not committed.

So things go. Last May, by presidential decision, the first secretaries of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) in the provinces of Matanzas and Artemisa were relieved of their posts, curiously both provinces located in the west of the country. Then, as recently as last week, the same changes were made against the party bosses in Guantánamo and Holguín, located in the south and north.

It’s reasonable to think that because the circus elite is aging and with the intent to make their mark on eternity, they seek certain changes to show a much more heterogeneous composition of the deputies who have the opportunity to approach with a much more integrated focus the search for solutions to the current problems in different sectors of our national life.

I think not, and I feel disillusioned, their only goal is to reconquer spaces, regions and areas. The General, corresponding to his background, applies military strategy. It was no accident that the National Defense Commission of the Cuban Parliament (led by its president Brigadier General Juan Rafael Ruiz Pérez) in session this July 5, ordered the participants to immediately execute a new set of measures to strengthen and expand the power, already excessive, possessed by State Security and the National Police. It’s the same as imposing citizen peace at the stroke of a major, the whip and the barracks.

And to round it off, the recently concluded seventh plenum of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba, trumpeted the appointment of 11 new members, while removing from its ranks leaders who, although it seemed new to many, had already been removed from office in September 2012.

It’s worth noting the case of Misael Enamorado who, being “enamored,” had his head in the clouds and not recognizing the laws of gravity instead of falling, rose, taking on new functions putting him closer to the euro, the dollar and the sun.

Different but at the same time similar, he succeeds the former president of the National Assembly, Dr. Ricardo Alarcón; who instead of being awarded a well-earned place as an air traffic controller, is reassigned as adviser to the President to deal with — in what appears to be a parallel government — everything concerning relations between Cuba and the United States.

I don’t know about you, but to me all this, more than any commentary coming from the other side, forces me to think that the Commander-in-Chief is paving the way he announced last February, in a very hurried way, to allow him to exercise his “right” to retire from the Government, completely monopolize power, and dictate the decisions of the State from behind the scenes.

15 July 2013

From La Finca, the Spy Asks for More / Juan Juan Almeida

Rene Gonzalez, a member of the "Cuban Five" or "Five Heroes" now back in Cuba. From http://lagartoverde.com
Rene Gonzalez, a member of the “Cuban Five” aka the “Five Heroes” now back in Cuba. From http://lagartoverde.com

News on Mondays tends to be unflattering, and that is why, instead of writing a story, I would rather share a gossip, which if it doesn’t get you informed will entertain you. So I risk it.

You may surely remember the spell of that magician who at the Pioneer parties, amid the heat of a bonfire, before reaching into his hat, from which he then would pull out a small replica of the national insignia, would cross himself and say: “What until now was a handkerchief is turned into a flag.”

Well, it turns out that a few days ago–while Havana continues to face its unfortunate struggle of worn out prostitutes, criminals with decorum, the intellectualized poor, deranged leaders, entrepreneurs who have managed to triumph selling stolen little mirrors, and leftists who defend worn out images under the uproar of Chivas Regals–a friend called me to tell me in a conspiratorial tone that René González Sehewert, the well-known ex-convict, member of the gang “The Wasps 5 or 4,” had the indiscretion to express his discomfort, because in his view, he has not been treated in Cuba as he deserves.

What to believe? -I wonder- It is true that, from habitually lying, someone who practices espionage develops a constant conflict with the word loyalty; but it is also true that on December 29, 2001, Cuba’s National Assembly of People’s Power granted, in a special session, the honorary title of Hero of the Republic of Cuba to Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino, Antonio Guerrero, Fernando González and René González.

I listened to the story, and so my friend told me that super-wasp René González, in an act of utter incoherence, because of his known legal status, wrote to General Raúl Castro who in response, instead of sending him to a psychiatrist, sent him an officer (nearsighted, shy and unpopular) as emissary from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a state body known for spending its time and money on Origami, in addition to press releases.

The whistleblower and the envoy, forgetting the old saying: “Anything you try to hide is always visible to others,” went out for dinner and ended up at La Finca (The Ranch), a super exclusive restaurant, located in the old Biltmore neighborhood, today Siboney in the Playa municipality.

As entrée, they ordered avocado cream; and the main course was grilled goose liver in a fig-raspberry sauce.

This gastronomic refuge, certainly very inordinate, does not include in its structure a menu with the prices; I owe you that one. But it is logical to believe that people with foreign–and so un-proletarian–tastes may get their ideals spoiled due to emotional problems.

That said, it seems that, somewhat saturated with the national situation, even the spy wants God to send a beam of light over the island, capable of breaking the spell of the old and monotone cycle: “Wake up, sleep, die”; or in its failure, it could reward the island getting it out of simplicity toward eccentric and palatial luxury. Is it possible that every spy ends up somewhat perturbed?

This is quite a fable, hard to digest, but somebody assured me that through this emissary, René asked the General about the possibility of a job in any of the Cuban embassies in Argentina, Bolivia, Venezuela or Ecuador, countries to which he offered to travel incognito, armed with his principles and taking his questionable ethics as luggage.

After the dessert, but before the coffee, making a funny face and showing a very flattering look in his eyes, René alleged that just like astronauts and emergency doctors, “agents” also need decompression time.

I have not been able to confirm yet the veracity of this story, but it reminded me of something that was once written to satirize the manual of the now extinct KGB: “Spies and criminals share that cold principle of being able to sell their mothers just to get rewarded.”

Translated by Chabeli

29 June 2013

Filling Stores with Bolivian Clothing / Juan Juan Almeida

No doubt you heard that last week, on June 13 and 14, representatives from Cuba and Bolivia met in Havana to take part in their countries’ first business forum and first round of negotiations to explore various possibilities for economic exchange and for strengthening bilateral relations.

It is a bad omen, I tell you, that such an important meeting took place in the Hotel Nacional, in the Tanganana Room to be exact, which coincidentally is named after the cellar that forms part of the aged facility’s foundation and where, according to legend, Franciscan monks hid valuable treasure.

The treasure is no longer there, only vestiges of the old legend remain and any business agreement between Cuba and Bolivia will last exactly as long as a Palestinian peace plan: one round.

But that is my very skeptical opinion. According to official sources, this transcendental encounter was led by important officials from both countries, who share a common enemy. The United States, Chile and the hole in the ozone layer would seem to be disconnected strands but they carry a direct message and a clear meaning. The meeting was more a political consultation than a business gathering.

Teresa Morales, the Minister of Economic Development, led the delegation from the South American country. You might remember her name from the very descriptive headlines of well-documented articles that appeared not long ago about the hundreds of demonstrators in the Altos district demanding her resignation for — and I quote — ”her inability to resolve the problem of access to staple foods and for exacerbating the shortage of basic goods and services.”

Judging from all the signs and signals, cooperation between the future partners promises to be unruly and counter-productive, which is typical of fraternal governments which ignore laws and citizen demands.

Cuba was represented by Estrella Madrigal, a fat, bland mid-level director with limited decision-making authority. She, like many, augments her diet with unproductive trips, presents from businesspeople and some small change here and there.

Other than a speech limited to the matter at hand — joint economic ventures — she spent all her time drinking mojitos, eating canapés and urging the participants to take advantage of the enormous possibilities offered by membership in the Bolivarian Alliance of the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). She expressed her support for SUCRE (Unified System for Regional Compensation), a proposed common currency to be used for all joint operations. In addition to speaking about investments, she referred to the siphoning off of goods on consignment.

With corrosive cleverness Cuba offered the Andeans one-of-a-kind, exclusive access to the thousands of empty shelves in its monolithic chain of stores so that they might sell Bolivian-made textile products, footwear and cosmetics. The risk would be all theirs; nothing would be paid for in advance.

The accord has stimulated the sparkling wisdom of Cuba’s people. Some have even dared predict, with some degree of fear, that Bolivia’s traditional multi-colored woolen shawl — the aguayo — will be become by decree the national attire. No matter what happens, it all depends on who pays more.

26 June 2013

FARC Money Laundering in Cuba / Juan Juan Almeida

On May 26, 2013 in Havana’s convention center it was announced that the parties involved in peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla group had reached an agreement on agrarian issues, the first of five to be negotiated.

Land and its use has been a not insignificant factor and one of the fundamental causes of a conflict that has claimed many lives. According to the document the accord should in theory bring about the much hoped-for beginning of a new series of changes in the rural and agrarian situation in Colombia.

The announcement of the agreement was applauded and witnessed by representatives from Cuba and Norway, which serve as the guarantor countries, as well as Venezuela and Chile, which act as observers. What is unusual in all of this is that none of the parties involved in the peace process has confirmed that any of the basic issues has been definitively resolved. “Nothing has been agreed to until everything has been agreed to” is another way of saying that “nothing is agreed to.”

With this discreet semantic manipulation, thus ended the ninth in a series of conversations which will resume tomorrow, June 11, to discuss other critical issues such as the FARC’s participation in Colombia’s political life. It is a clever way to rechristen this band of eccentric misfits and iconoclasts, who want to be viewed as having become real partners in peace and admired luminaries trying to avoid going to prison (which is where they belong) by signing an accord which will allow them to enter Congress.

Ultimately, there is always something that must be sacrificed. I understand that, when one negotiates and struggles to secure mutual benefits and results conducive to national harmony, it is often advantageous to allow certain illegitimate values to triumph over some ethical, moral and even democratic principles.

The Cuban delegation understood this well. Inspired by the old fable about kissing a frog, it decided to bet on the miraculous possibility that these obscene guajacones (guerrilla outlaws) might become beautiful princesses, honorable officials, effective parliamentarians or grand heads of state.

The government in Havana was tripping over itself to not only to sell itself as a defender of regional peace, but also to try to profit from some democratic voices calling for a swift solution to the prolonged conflict. Lastly and most importantly, however, it wanted to make a lot of money.

Yes, you read that right: a lot of money. A significant part of the two million dollars that the FARC raised carrying out “nomological and nomothetical” operations such as kidnapping and drug trafficking is now safely hidden away and is reporting good returns. It was washed, rinsed and well ironed through the purchase of modern equipment and sophisticated instrumentation for humanitarian use in Cuban hospitals such as CIMEQ* and the Cira García Clinic.* It has also been invested as part of the Cuban contribution to joint ventures that the island maintains with industrial consortia and large hotel chains headquartered inside and outside Cuba.

Unlike Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, French aviator and author of the book The Little Prince, what is essential to the revolutionary government is not invisible to the eye; it is cash.

Translator’s note: CIMEQ is a hospital that treats high-ranking government officials and military officers, their families and foreign dignitaries. Patients at the Cira García Clinic, which caters to foreign health tourists, are overwhelmingly from overseas. Its most sought-after service is plastic surgery.

13 June 2013

The General on His Birthday / Juan Juan Almeida

During his term in office General Raul Castro has raised doubts and caused confusion. It seems ridiculous to think that a politician, whoever he might be, does not want to fix his country, but to hold onto power. Another oddity is that he wants to but cannot hold back the hands of time in order to forestall the arrival of a future that will inevitably arrive. Or that he prefers to promote illusory (and illusionistic) stimulus measures which in turn stimulate the old “save what you can” mentality and popular discontent.

Today, June 3, was his eighty-first birthday, which he has the strange habit of wanting to celebrate with his family. At this point I am not sure if the series of reforms the general has undertaken since he was crowned President of Cuba should be categorized as a success or a failure.

It would be unfair to deny his efforts at removing obstacles to the state by eliminating a large part of the unproductive state workforce. His measures in this regard, however, were aimed at generating publicity. Actual decentralization has been insignificant. They were intended to strengthen certain market forces. More importantly, they were aimed at transferring key decision making authority to friends and family members whom he considered “honest,” an effort that was conveniently thwarted by “discreet” loyalists.

For a long time the octogenarian soldier has deceived us by repeating like a parrot the claim that businesses run by the armed forces ministry were better organized and more productive, that militarizing the business sector would clean up an indifferent workforce and reduce corruption.

Such an enormous lie could not yield results. It was only an account transfer, a restructuring of power. On the Cuban asteroid many people know that military-run businesses, while listed on the payroll of the Revolutionary Armed Forces and run from the top down, do not operate based on reality – not in a social context much less in a physical one.

Do they generate benefits and produce goods and services? Yes, but only as a result of blind obedience (or exploitation or abuse or whatever you want to call it) from soldiers and recruits who work day after day without pay.

Economic production, with its many redundancies, barely covers its own production costs. As a result the militarization of the already disastrous spider web of Cuban businesses has caused the country to ascend structurally and economically to stratospheric levels of incomparable incompetence.

It is obvious that the General is no economist or anything else but a sadist, crook, manipulator and perfectionist. This simple reason explains why he controls the press, knowing they are not really journalists but historians, the cornerstones of glasnost.

It was Raul who, without renouncing intimidation as a means of repression, allowed explicit and growing criticism as means of catharsis and a way to encourage people to openly examine problems in order to correct them. Fair enough, but I do not know if talking about them is enough to correct them. Catharsis can relieve spiritual pain, but it does not change a system.

Many want to use complicate theories to explain why Raul tried this. Some have come to call it “Basic Thrust,” a reference to his relaxation of the old emigration law. This is why today we can embrace so many opponents, non-conformists and dissidents, who can now leave Cuba and return with demonstrable ease.

It is not a puzzle. The answer is so simple that my grandmother used to repeat it to me as a child: “The best place to corral a tree so that it does not feel like a prisoner is in a forest.

10 June 2013

Forgiveness or Justice / Juan Juan Almeida

The Ladies in White under attack by State Security and their mob

The dictators and their henchmen, as a rule, are extravagant, autocratic, narcissistic, hypochondriac, provocative, enigmatic and disturbing individuals. Because of this, and more, anyone who grew up in any of the links in the chain of a dictatorial regime, shares a psychosocial trauma that is difficult to cure.

Government violence starts to weaken the welfare state with the constant exercise of its own virtuosity to impose terror and creates uncertainty under the umbrella of authority. This validates the power and leaves citizens without any real possibility of using an internal or external entity to defend their rights. It is called — according to some scholars – legal helplessness.

Scientifically it has been shown that this damage affects all people regardless of social class to which each individual belongs. And it affects not only the psychological and family level, but also damnifies cultural and educational development.

I do not believe in left nor right; but that all dictatorships possess as their only ideology the practice of supremacy, and imposition of their rule to the extent that society ends up adopting passivity, submission and resignation as a natural phenomenon.

Totalitarianism, with absolute certainty is sexist, the  rules legally and reigns over the woman by whatever means.

I think many know the repeated humiliation of Cuba’s Ladies in White. But there is so much more; for example, Cuba’s psychiatric hospitals are stuffed with very descriptive records of horrific sexual assault by the authority, which not confronted legally, damages not only the body memory of each female victim, but also the shock becomes irreparable, and is extended to the children.

Countless women who have been affected in their individuality, in their environment, in their family, social and ethical surroundings. Hate, in these cases (without referring to the many mothers who have lost children in the sea), is a sensible and even necessary emotion.

Compelling reason forces me to believe that in order to discuss the future of Cuba and its transition, we should first be self-sufficient and unburden ourselves of the disguise, and with it, the desire to please.

I don’t know about others, but to me, I respect the view of those who are anxious to figure out how to outline a common moral discourse that encourages citizen exaltation; it sounds naive, false, ridiculous and even childish tome to hear them speak of Forgiveness as if this were an elegant, civilized and pragmatic response to State violence.

I wonder how could Forgiveness, by itself — if it could — not be the starting point for another period of violence, or how this same absolution could achieve the reconciliation of a society that for years seen their children confronted like bands of enemies.

I have read, and lately I hear with reiterated frequency, several formulas and examples, but I only trust two old tools that have historically proven to be more reliable than revenge, and more effective than tolerance: The law and justice.

1 June 2013

My Relationship with Antonio Castro

On 19 October 202 AD, the Roman general Scipio Africanus defeated Hannibal in the Battle of Zama, near Carthage. It has nothing to do with it, but on the same date, but much later, born in Cuba was Dr. Antonio Castro Soto del Valle, the brand new golf champion, the fourth of five sons born to the union of the former dictator and Fidel Castro with Castro Soto del Valle (a woman whom I respect for her exceptional performance of her role as mother).

Let me clarify, I say that it is exceptional because one warm winter night, at the end of 2004, when the power of MININT and the frenzy of Raul was falling on me, Antonio approached me wife, took a two dollar bill from his wallet and looking into her eyes said, “They say it brings good luck; take it, you’re going to need it. Raul tried to do away with me; but my mother is alive, JJ’s isn’t.”

My relationship with Antonio was always affable, distant, and sincere, nothing more. His marriages, wives and children is not an issue here.

As a child — according to the bodyguards — Tony was shy, obsessive, curious and capricious; but his history teacher during the time he studied at La Lenin High School described him as a fickle student, not too neat, who didn’t wear his last name easily and suffered repeated identity crises and depression.Perhaps this frustration became a counterweight of advance and then deployment. continue reading

It’s worth pointing out that with the halo of mystery and security, a constant in his life during his student years, his teachers were active members of the general directorate of MININT personal security cross-dressing as teachers, who marked extensive gaps in the cognitive and instructive processes of the young Castro Soto del Valle.

When, under his father’s orders, they broke the shell of secretiveness, Antonia, eager to socialize, was rediscovered and emerged to the ordinary world with three attractive adjectives: famous, right and powerful; in other words, a potent magnet of attraction. What many are asking is why, not being the oldest, nor the youngest, nor the last, nor the preferred, it is he who is “without equal.”

Of course, the stereotype of beauty is influential: Antonio is blond, handsome, rich in stature and exaggerated in ego. It’s the manly image of any lead actor. And he’s famous as a good doctor.

Educated like a king, and fascinated by monarchies, he is a sophisticated mortal who has charm, elegance and good taste. Friendly when he wants to be and overwhelming when contradicted.

But the key to his success lies in the art of seduction. He knows well that his last name, more than an icon, is a commercial trademark and he handles masterfully and in detail his personal marketing.

His immodesty and glamor are undoubtedly his strongest attraction; he enjoys being different but repulses those who flatter him, he has temporary sensitivity for ordinary Cubans (whom, logically, he will inherit as subjects), those whose only property is their ID cards.

Tony is a cool guy, who born in half disaffection assume that, even though born in power, all human beings are like our environment and as such we should be understood.

23 May 2013

The Numbers that Cuba Shelves / Juan Juan Almeida

According to the newspaper Granma, Cuba is among the 16 countries that have already reached the goal set by the World Food Summit in 1996, halving the number of undernourished people in every country of the world before 2015.

It is sad that Mr. José Graziano da Silva, director general of the United Nations Organization for Food and Agriculture (FAO, for its acronym in English), asserts that the credit has been possible thanks to the priority given by the Cuban government to guaranteeing its people’s right to food and the policies implemented to achieve this objective.

Nonsense, but explainable. It’s hard to see beyond the growth with its perfection that aims to show a government that distorts all its data and knows that for the vast majority of international organizations, the world is reduced to numbers. We are numbers and calculations; very dangerous arithmetic that some Cuban officials handle with excellence. My country is a place of impunity reigned over by an impeccable combination of politics and prostitution.

I don’t want to go overboard citing old familiar tactics used by the Cuban government to lobby and win votes in the different international level forums. It makes no difference if it’s the CDR, FMC, UNICEF, FAO, HRC, EU, UNDP, OEI, CARICOM … Every acronym is handled the same, national or international. When there are funds, nothing will be impossible because in island politics you just have to wait and what is won is lost and what is lost is won.

In the mid ’90s, a young neonatologist who worked in the Ramón González Coro OB-GYN Hospital in Havana Vedado, formerly the Sacred Heart clinic, was among the many selected to be part of a commission that would study what then was a TOP SECRET investigation.

Hiding a smile, and trying not to show her immense gratitude for such reliability, the talented doctor went to work. And counting on the full support of the Council of State itself, she thought that telling the truth would be the seed of what with great passion she called “My Revolution.”

The hurried exploration found that the Cuban infant born underweight, which later resulted in a considerable and irreversible decrease in size of the Cuban child, which even scientifically established standards considered “alarming.”

For this study, which lasted some time, this multidisciplinary team compiled a spreadsheet which took into account variables such as maternal age, health status assessment to detect pregnancy, treatment with nutritional supplements, weight gain in pregnancy , history of curettage, etc.. All these data were extracted from the records of pregnant women in doctors’ offices, and in the various departments of statistics for each local polyclinic.

The final report revealed that the factors associated with the preterm birth of many Cuban infants weighing under 2,500 grams, are inadequate nutrition of the future mother (this represented the highest percentage of cases studied), anemia during pregnancy and an inadequate time between births.

Since then, and as appropriate, the results were altered and the real results were shelved under lock and key. And my friend, who left medicine and has dedicated herself to painting, says that facial hair is not the only thing that connects Cuban officials with the Taliban.

21 May 2013