Juan Juan Almeida, 30 January 2017 — A fine that is stranger than fiction. More than 400,000 Cuban convertible pesos (roughly the same in dollars), is the astronomical figure set as a penalty for La California restaurant, a palader (private restaurant) a few steps from Cuba’s Malecon.
Established in abeautifully restored 18th century building at 55 Crespo Street between San Lazaro and Refugio in Central Havana, La California restaurant-bar offers Italian and Cuban-international fusion food, as well as exquisite service, attractive and entertaining, where the customer can enter the kitchen and prepare their own delicacy. Part of what is consumed in this agreeable place is grown on the private estate of a Cuban farmer, and the rest — according to co-director Charles Farigola — is imported. continue reading
“During the plenary session of the National Assembly Cuban vice president Machado Ventura referenced the food in the paladares, making particular note of the products offered that are not acquired in the national retail network,” began an explanation of a Cuban entrepreneur passing through Miami to buy supplies for his restaurant in Havana.
“The reality,” he continued,” is that the paladares import very little, most of the food and drink comes from the hotels*, especially those that offer ‘all-inclusive’ plans. Vacuum-packed filets, serrano ham, fresh vegetables, salmon, sausages, octopus, squid, etc. Almost everything comes from Matanzas Province, where tourism is concentrated. There are police checkpoints to search vehicles coming from the resort town of Varadero to Havana; but almost everything is transported in tour vehicles and they avoid the controls, because the national police don’t want to bother the tourists.
“The strategy, in response, was to inspect the paladares that boast about having these kinds of imported products, and La California fell. They also say that the inspection report specified that the sales report didn’t match observed reality. Parameters and factors that seem subjective.”
Can a Cuban paladar pay such a huge fine?
“I don’t think so. Look, the inspectors collect a percent of every fine they impose, and the private businesses offer the inspectors a greater percentage than they would receive. So that’s how we all survive because it’s a game of give and take.
“It could be that La California didn’t want to play this game, they could have accepted an arrangement to pay in installments, they could default and accept an ugly penalty, they may fight the fine in the courts. Anything can happen.
“No, we self-employed are not criminals, we are a social group that makes things and not communist dreams nor libertarian utopias; we are the part of civil society most dedicated to work, to generating income, jobs, and bringing money to the national economy, and even so the policy of the government is to push us toward crime,” concludes the entrepreneur before boarding his plane to Cuba, the island that, with a certain euphemism, he calls the “Barracks.”
*Translator’s note: That is, it is “diverted” (the term Cubans prefer rather than “stolen”) and sold to private businesses by a chain of state workers that can range from the highest to the lowest levels.
Juan Juan Almeida, 27 January 2017 — With notable determination, the Cuban government seeks to lure, or rather rope-in, physicians, nurses and other healthcare workers who have defected while serving on medical missions outside Cuba.
To this end, it has sent out a flyer in which it assures that the right of return is guaranteed–just as long as they maintain a respectful attitude toward the Revolution and have not joined counter-revolutionary organizations.
Everyone knows that healthcare is a strategic factor in the development and wellbeing of any society. The diplomacy of white coats, as the export of medical services is also known, is among the principal revenue sources of the Cuban state, and a very effective tool for political influence. continue reading
Cuban medical doctors serve in remote areas. Cuba’s contribution to the fight against the Ebola virus in West Africa still resonates in the memory of European, and even North American, politicians. For this reason, any defection or escape poses a concern for the Island authorities.
A medical defector, besides becoming a bad investment for the country’s economy, also symbolizes the unquestionable link in the chain of failures of the Cuban healthcare system. But a traitor who returns signifies a social, economic and public relations triumph.
They must be induced to return. To this end–and to take advantage of the tremendous uncertainty planted by the announced end of the “wet foot, dry foot” policy and the Cuban medical professional parole program–the government has started a campaign that covers every municipality of the Island, visiting the families of every ungrateful malcontent health worker, making them complete a form and using it as a communication link or bait.
The form is as follows (“collaborator” in this case being a positive term):
Proposal to Exchange Information with Relatives of Ex-Collaborators
Name and surnames of the ex-collaborator:
Name and surnames of the interviewed relative:
Relative’s political affiliation:
Degree of kinship with the ex-collaborator:
Duty to Inform:
The family member is to inform the ex-collaborator regarding the Cuban Government’s disposition to guarantee the right of return to the country, according to the requirements of the Migration Law, as long as individual maintains an attitude of respect towards the Revolution, and has not joined a counterrevolutionary organization.
Juan Juan Almeida, 24 January 2017 — Hours after the Obama administration said good-bye to what was the “wet foot/dry foot” policy, in Cuba the recently named Minister of the Interior, the new man in charge of guarding the secrets and security of the State, Julio Cesar Gandrilla Bermejo, orders a braking, a review and punishment of all those officers who, in complying with the law, commit excesses and/or abuses in their treatment of the population, of those charged, imprisoned, and even those the government calls “members of little counter-revolutionary groups.”
The surprising directive not only comes within the framework of normalizations of relations between the United States and Cuba, and also appears at exactly the time when the uncertainty of many Cubans was triggered when, out of the blue, they closed the valve and reduced the escapes. continue reading
The news of the “wet foot/dry foot” repeal had barely been announced, intended to stop the exodus of Cubans to the United States, but the pressure within the island didn’t wait. This opportune measure, or opportunistic reaction, aims to take advantage of the change to protect the system and national security, silence those who attack the government showing the constant violations of individual justice, and avoiding at all costs popular discontent.
Although today everything appears to be in Gandrilla’s favor, some turbulence of opinion arose among the officers who mocked the vice-admiral saying that he is the only sailor who doesn’t know how to swim, and that his vertiginous ascent is due to a personal relationship with general Raul Castro, who — after testing his trustworthiness as a partner in marathon domino tournaments, and evaluating his active participation in important hunts and risky fishing expeditions — first appointed him chief of the Department of Personal Security (DSP) of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) (which should not be confused with the group of the same name in the Ministry of the Interior), and then made him Chief of Military Counterintelligence (CIM), and later first vice minister of the Ministry of the Interior and ultimately the Minister, taking the same route as his predecessor, the deceased general Carlos Fernandez Gondin.
Can the new minister enforce the new provision?
Julio César Gandarilla is a “cadre” of Raul’s. He lives with a certain modesty, along with his children (one a cardiologist and the other in the military) at number 44 on La Torre Street in the capital district of Nuevo Vedado, almost directly across from the building occupied for years by the Castro Espín clan.
He is not known for excesses, he is a solitary man, suspicious, slow to laugh and a good eater. It is opportune to know that when he was chief of the CIM he came on the scene because of his critical interest in reforming the methods that have created overflowing prisons in Cuba, with a total absence of social rehabilitation for the prisoners.
Personally, I don’t think he has the power to stop the repression, like many, and with great care he may be able to control the excesses committed by hundreds of repressors.
He has a great deal of experience in pursuing soldiers, comes from CIM with a doctorate in Internal Control; but the Ministry of the Interior is not the Revolutionary Armed Forces, it is one of those territories where it is not easy to impose new norms.
Juan Juan Almeida, 13 January 2017 — Point Zero has unleashed a conflict between the Castro Soto del Valles and their cousins of the “emporium,” the Castro Espins (Raul Castro’s children), who are trying to expel Dalia, Fidel Castro’s widow, and her children from the strategic property.
It all seem carefully calculated, to maintain the appearance of a well-groomed, well-brought-up happy family. Health, fame, money, power, good moods and excellent humor; but less than three months since Fidel’s death, the fight between the members of the clan for the exercise of power over the famous parcel that for years served as the refuge of the former commander-in-chief, has become the beginning of a great soap opera that promises to have many episodes. continue reading
Located to the west of Havana, in the municipality of Playa, in the Jaimanitas neighborhood, exactly at 232 Street between 222nd and 238th, is Point Zero, the apple of discord.
“They are pushing to get Dalia out of Point Zero,” says one of the bodyguards of the late Commander-in-Chief who, in addition, adds that he feels hurt because none of the bodyguards were invited to the funeral.
“A lack of respect, a personal affront, and to justify the eviction they come up with three cheap justifications,” says the source.
1 – They are going to destroy everything so that nothing is left and no one else can access the “last estate” of Fidel Castro.
2 – They are going to convert Point Zero into a museum with limited access. Remodel it and include it as a part of an exclusive and obligatory tour that will only be shown to important visitors.
3 – They are going to maintain the property as the temporary residence for future Heads of State of the island.
I do not know what the outcome will be of this truculent story. But what I do know, is that, by resolution, the properties used and enjoyed by the maximum leaders do not appear on the Registry of Property because they are a part of the “Associated Housing and Possessions Linked to the Council of State” and cannot be inherited.
The provision is that the widows abandon the property where they lived with the political leader. This was the case with the wives of José Alberto “Pepín” Naranjo and Carlos Rafael Rodríguez, to cite the examples of two deceased leaders.
But of course, there is always an exception. I know of one. The “leadership of the country,” understood to mean Raul Castro, for personal interest and affection, is authorized under the incontrovertible power of … “I feel like it,” to transfer a property from the regime’s “Basic Possession” to “Personal Property.”
“Dalia can be called the most varied epithets; but she was the wife of Fidel and dedicated herself to that man. If they confront her, I assure you that we are going to see the unleashing of the tongue of more than one* Castro Soto del Valle” according to the firm statement of one of the many former daughters-in-law of the dead commander.
*Translator’s note: Fidel and Dalia had five sons and Fidel had another son with his first wife and other acknowledged children.
Juan Juan Almeida, 29 December 2017– On December 21 a leftist coalition led by Spain’s Podemos party introduced a legislative proposal that could benefit thousands of Cubans, as well as people of other nationalities, who are descendants of Spanish citizens born outside of Spain.
If approved, the bill submitted to the Chamber of Deputies would grant Spanish citizenship to descendants of Spaniards who had emigrated.
Spanish law had already made a person whose mother or father were native-born Spaniards eligible for citizenship. Law 52/2007, also known as the “Historical Memory Law” or the “Grandchildren’s Law” expanded the opportunity and, within two years and eleven months, some 446,277 people had acquired citizenship under the law. 95.2% of them were from Latin America, with more than half of the applications made through Spanish consulates in Cuba and Argentina. continue reading
If approved, this legislation will greatly expand the number of descendants eligible for Spanish citizenship. It would allow the mother country to legally recognize, among others, grandchildren of Spanish women born in Spain and married to a Spaniard before the adoption of the 1978 Spanish constitution and children of those who obtained citizenship through Law 52/2007.
“Thousands of legislative proposals are made by various parliamentary factions and not even 10% of them manage to get the necessary support in the Spanish parliament. The Podemos proposal does not have this support,” says a source within the ruling party.
However, the proposal by the leftists comes at a significant as well as opportune moment for thousands of Cubans of Spanish descent who were not covered by the Historical Memory Law.
The year 2016, which is quickly coming to an end, was an important year for the Cuban government. In terms of marketing, it was excellent.
President Barack Obama’s visit at the end of March aroused people’s hope for a change. With the resumption of relations, they watched high-level US officials parade through the Havana airport. The Old World’s interest in strengthening political-economic dialogue with the island culminated in the repeal of the the EU’s “Common Position” towards Cuba. And the visit to Cuba by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan was the first by a head of government from that country.
But in spite of all the publicity and the VIP visitors, the Cuban people’s prospects for development are obsolete and the arrival of much anticipated changes is nowhere in sight.
This legislation would encourage many Cubans to look for an alternative emigration route in light of the still ambiguous outlook for relations between the United States and Cuba.
I personally am unaware how this law in the land of Serrano ham would work. But I do know that, today, Spain is not prepared to handle an influx of 100,000 new citizens, who will surely arrive seeking assistance.
Juan Juan Almeida, 16 December 2016 — Twenty-seven years after Cause Number 1, the judicial proceedings that resulted in the deaths by firing squad and arrests of several high officials of the Cuban army and secret services, Ileana de la Guardia–daughter of the then-colonel of State Security of the Havana regime–believes that the decision to execute her father was made by the Cuban dictator to teach a lesson.
According to De La Guardia, who lives under asylum in France, Castro did not accept the critiques that her father and others, such as the general Arnaldo Ochoa–also executed–made regarding the need for changes in the country. She affirmed that the deaths of her father, Ochoa, and two other officials served as a way to cast the blame on them for the charge by United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) that Cuba was involved in international drug trafficking.
Until the time of your father’s trial, who was Ileana de la Guardia, how did you learn of the trial, how did you experience it?
At that time I was living in Cuba, had finished my university studies, and was a psychologist. I learned of the seizures of my father and my uncle, Patricio de la Guardia, on the same day. We did not know where they were nor what the charges were. Eventually, we learned that they were being held at Villa Marista [Central Offices of Cuban State Security], and we went there. Upon arriving we were told that they were being detained, that they were not arrested, that we had to leave, and that nobody could tell us what the charges were. This is how justice works in Cuba–“justice” in quotation marks, that is, because it is not justice. continue reading
A week went by, and I was given the authorization to see my father. I asked him if he knew what he was being accused of and he told me no. I also asked him if he would be tried, and he said he didn’t know. That same day in the evening, when I arrived at my grandparents’ house, I learned from a phone call that I was required to appear in the auditorium of the Armed Forces (FAR) the next day because that was where the hearing would take place.
Imagine receiving this news without them having the right to have their lawyers present. The lawyers who were there were “public” defenders. The one assigned to my father told me that he was ashamed to represent him. The one for Patricio told us that he had not had time to read the file and did not really know how to defend “that gentleman.”
That was when we knew that they were all lawyers with the Ministry of the Interior (MININT). Before starting the proceedings, before trying them, Granma newspaper ran headlines announcing the death penalty. The front page said, “we will cleanse with blood this offense to the fatherland.” It was clear that the decision to execute them had already been made.
The trial was a kind of circus in which all were accused or accused themselves. Later we learned that they had been blackmailed, that they had to incriminate themselves to escape the death penalty–and to protect their families–there was a lot of blackmail with regard to the families. Thus the trial went until the end.
Our family wanted to appeal, but we were denied. Later, the Council of State, fully and unanimously, came down in favor of execution. They were executed exactly one month after being arrested: General Arnaldo Ochoa; Martínez, the assistant; my father, Colonel Antonio de la Guardia; and his assistant, Amado Padrón.
The memory of that trial brings back images of confusion and much division within the high military command. How do you remember it, and what were the repercussions for you, your family?
The consequence for our family was being watched all the time. There were always cars parked near where we lived, and when we went out, these cars would follow us with officials inside them who would watch us. There were also cameras filming us from the houses across the street from ours.
Your father, as well as Patricio (the brother of your father, Antonio de la Guardia), and General Arnaldo Ochoa were well-known and admired men. Throughout that trial, what happened with their friends?
I could not say that all the friends stopped seeing us; I believe some people were afraid, others were not. I maintained relationships with many people who continued coming to see us. I know that many people were let go from the MININT, many officials, a high percentage. That ministry was taken over by Abelardo Colomé Ibarra, who up until that moment was in the FAR. There was a takeover of the Interior Ministry by military officials.
What information do you have about the real reason that your father and the other defendants in Cause Number 1 of 1989 were executed?
From the beginning, I knew immediately that the charges against Ochoa and Patricio, who were in Africa, were trumped up. All of them were charged with drug trafficking, which made no sense. If they were working in Africa throughout so many years, directing the Cuban troops in Africa, how were they going to be accused of something that they couldn’t control? If drug trafficking was going on, and the ships were docking in Cuba, it was happening while these men were in Africa.
Later we realized that Raúl Castro, in a speech to the armed forces that was broadcast on television, had said, “those officials who are criticizing, let them go to Eastern Europe,” and then, “down with Ochoa.”
Then, connecting the dots, we realized that Ochoa and the group of officials around him criticized Fidel Castro and the regime a great deal because of the need for changes. This reached the ears of Fidel and Raúl because Ochoa had made sure to make it public, within the army and in family gatherings–besides telling them directly.
This is the fundamental reason why Fidel decided to eliminate these officials: because of the political aspect.
Meanwhile, the DEA was accusing Cuba of involvement in drug trafficking to the United States, and Castro found the perfect excuse to eliminate these military men while at the same time eliminate the DEA’s accusation of the Cuban government.
Prior to these events, what would you hear your father say about Fidel Castro?
As of 1986 or 87, there were very critical articles starting to appear in the press in Cuba, in the [Spanish-language Soviet] magazines Sputnik and Novedades de Moscú, which spoke of glasnost and about how Gorbachev was trying to make rapid changes.
People read these publications and these topics were discussed a great deal in my father’s house, we would speak of it on the patio. They thought the place might be bugged but they didn’t care.
The fact of being at a high level of command and knowing that the Soviets were already changing the system made them think that Fidel Castro would accept this. They thought that he couldn’t be so crazy as to oppose the changes. “He has to realize that this doesn’t work anymore, people must be given freedoms to express themselves, to travel, to have human rights”–they talked about all of this.
When I left Cuba–first to Mexico and later to Spain–it was very difficult to talk about this because we were still undocumented, we had no residency anywhere, no political asylum. It was in France, where we received support, including political asylum, where I decided to speak publicly. Articles started to come out, journalists started to investigate, and other facts emerged. We learned that there are officials in Russia who say that Ochoa met in private with Gorbachev in Cuba. Ochoa spoke Russian, there was nobody else present, Gorbachev wanted to speak only with Ochoa. Fidel could not stand this.
Ochoa never kept quiet about anything. One day, right in front of me at Patricio’s house, he said, “This has to change, it cannot go on this way, that man is insane, what are we going to do with the crazy man.”
In Cuba, it was always said that the writer Gabriel García Márquez, winner of the Nobel Prize in literature and personal friend of Fidel Castro, tried to intercede so that they would not execute your father and Arnaldo Ochoa. Is this true?
What I know for sure, because my husband Jorge Masetti and I went to see him, is that we took García Márquez a letter from my grandmother, asking him to intervene so that these officials, including my father, would not be put to death.
He told us, “I will do everything possible, I believe that this is not a good idea, and I have tried to get across to Fidel Castro that it is not a good idea for him personally.” But I never had proof that he did this.
After the execution, did you ever see García Márquez again? Did he tell you anything about this matter?
No, never again. I was now the daughter of a traitor. García Márquez was a powerful man, friend to powerful men. After being executed, my father was no longer a powerful man, he was a victim.
Did you have the chance to speak with your father after the sentence and before the execution?
Yes, before the trial, then during the trial I had a visit, during which he gave me to understand that they asked him to take responsibility and then they would not execute him, but that there was blackmail regarding the family and also with his life, and if he did not say that [incriminate himself], they would execute him.
And they did execute him. During the visit prior to the execution, which was very personal, he said, “things are going to get bad, but very bad, in this country.” Later came the “Special Period [grave economic crisis].” He knew what was awaiting Cuba.
Have you had any further news of your uncle Patricio, where he’s living? Does the government provide him with any retirement pension?
I cannot speak about this very much because it is a bit sensitive. What I can say is that he paints, because they [Antonio and Patricio de la Guardia] were painters before being military men, and they studied at an art school in the United States. He paints very well. He lives in the family home, it is not a house given to him by the Cuban state. Our family had properties before 1959. I don’t speak much about him these days, because if I say where he is or if I say too much, they will throw him in jail again.
Do you have contact with the family of General Ochoa or any of the other executed officers?
In 2006, because of illness, Fidel Castro gave over the command of the country to his brother, Raúl. The day after this announcement, I entered the cafeteria of the Karl Marx Theater in Havana, ran into one of the daughters of General Ochoa, and she told me, “I don’t want him to die, I want Fidel to suffer at least the half of what my family has suffered.” What did you feel at that time, when you heard this announcement, and what was your reaction when you found out that Fidel Castro had died?
At first, I didn’t believe it. When they called me from the US and my husband answered the telephone, I said to him, “He died again? I want to continue sleeping, leave me in peace.” Later when I got up and realized that it was true, it was like a sense of relief.
My husband asked me, what do you feel? I told him an enormous relief. The matter is that for me, it’s as if I had died spiritually. Besides, I already knew that he was ill and that he had lost his senses somewhat, given the things he would say. For me, he was like a shadow, a ghost. But that sense of relief was also because that symbol of the repression is no more, he doesn’t exist.
Does the death of Fidel Castro modify or change what 13 July 1989, means to you and your family?
To a certain point, I will tell you that for me, it is a relief that the one responsible, who decided the death of my father, has died, and in a certain way it gives me joy, I must admit. I cannot say that the death of him who ordered my father to be executed makes me sad, that would be absurd. That would be hypocrisy.
What does Raúl Castro mean to you?
For me, Raúl Castro represents the continuation of the system, with certain attributes different from those of his brother. They are two different people and have different command styles. The two have that ideologically dogmatic aspect, but perhaps Raúl is a bit more pragmatic, thus the changes that have been made on the economic level.
This is why I have been in favor of Obama’s visit, the opening of tourism, and of certain exchanges because it is the Cuban people who will benefit from this. Unfortunately, the regime takes advantage of this situation, but so does the average Cuban, those who have been able to start a business derive benefit and thus are able to help their families and other Cubans. And it is better than nothing, the problem is that it is not enough.
The country will not change until there are real political changes.
After the execution of your father, have you talked with or run into any of the children of Fidel or Raúl? If this were to happen, what would you say to them?
No, never, no. I didn’t know them. I never went anyplace where the children of Fidel Castro might be. I did meet two of Raúl’s daughters, but they were not friends of mine, we ran into each other somewhere. Mariela also studied psychology, so one time we coincided in some place.
How do you see Cuba’s immediate future?
In the short run, as things are now, the growth of tourism and Cubans surviving. This is what for now the government wants so as to not have social conflicts with the people because of the difficult economic situation.
At the political level, they are demonstrating that if they have to repress people for taking to the streets, for writing certain things in the blogs, they will do so. They will try to maintain control that way. We will have to wait and see if they realize that a country cannot develop without liberty.
Your family, like many others, is scattered around the world. Do you think that you will ever reunite again in Cuba?
I don’t know, the truth is that this is very difficult to answer. Seeing how things are, knowing that Raúl Castro has placed his children and relatives into the most important sectors of the country, taking control of the country with a view towards the future. Truly, I cannot give you a yes or no answer if I do not know what will happen. It would have to be a situation that would allow the return to a place with certain guarantees of justice and legality.
Would you delay, then, being able to give your uncle Patricio a hug?
For now, it will be delayed, if they don’t make changes and accept that one can go there having different opinions, which I have stated publicly outside. I don’t believe that I can go.”
Juan Juan Almeida, 22 December 2016 — Sad, paradoxical and irresponsible — but real. Rice, the common denominator, and basic ingredient, of Cuban cuisine, could be almost absent from the island’s tables at the end of the year.
The official press has already started its plan of offering free publicity for the dinner parties which will be celebrated the coming 24th and 31st of December and January 1st in cinemas, cultural centres, social circles and theatres on the island.
The idea, as they explain it, is to guarantee family enjoyment and dining during the Christmas period and, fundamentally, for the coming of the 58th anniversary of the triumph of the Cuban Revolution. continue reading
For that reason, they have doubled the work schedules for catering units and restaurants belonging to the government commercial chain. They will arrange exceptional supplies to livestock markets and local market places, and they are planning the sale of foodstuffs, from a variety of crops to different types of meat. But … is there the productive support to achieve this aim? As far as rice is concerned, no.
One of the directors of the agro-industrial company “Fernando Echenique Urquiza” made the point, in the national press, that, although in 2016 the production of rice was much higher than in previous years, he could not get hold of a good supply.
The government official blamed the problem on the early maturing of the crop, but another worker in the sector proposed other explanations:
“During the rainy season, we had a lot of rain, which helped the crops”, was the rice expert’s explicit and clear explanation.
“It’s true that it was ready early, but there are other factors which also have a negative effect, and not only in this harvest” he said.
“The country has developed an important investment programme to increase rice production nationally. Agreements have been signed authorising credits from the Import Export Bank of China (EXIM) for the purchase of medium and high-powered YTO tractors, and financial arrangements for the promotion of the national rice-growing agro-industry. We are setting up new irrigation systems, repairing dryers and mills. Modern seed-processing factories have been built and advanced equipment and technology has been purchased.
“But we still cannot depend on a sufficient fleet of vehicles to transport the product from the farm to the dryers, and to the stores, let alone to the markets. Nor do we have enough combine harvesters. And the dryers both here in Mayabeque province, and nationally, do not have the capacity to deal with a good harvest. And all of that is without taking into account the ridiculous price paid to the farmers for the demanding task of producing the grain which is irreplaceable in Cuban cooking”, said the expert.
As a last resort, the government has had to make up for negligence and inefficient production with last-minute imports, taking a hit with the purchase price, which, in turn, has a clear impact, especially at this time of year, on your average Cuban table.
Nevertheless, in spite of all these difficulties, for all Cubans, this is a Christmas to celebrate.
Juan Juan Almeida, 19 December 2016 — With 2018 approaching, alarm bells are already sounding over fissures in what was once the monolithic unity of the Communist Party and weaknesses in the supposed cohesiveness of Cuba’s royal family.
The long-awaited announcement of Raul Castro’s retirement has unleashed an “every man for himself” and “looking out for number one” attitude among those who, driven by the influence that supposedly comes from proximity to power, are already lobbying to build a future from the dictator’s throne.
The fact that Raúl Guillermo Rodríguez Castro, more widely known as “The Crab,” is continue reading
one of the leading contenders seems like a joke. To gain attention, he began promoting an incoherent platform which, to be honest, makes him look more like someone with a propensity for blunders who is planning an unsuccessful coup.
“Raulito is a moron. He lacks self-control so he acts first and thinks later. But he is not completely clueless. He is trying to get out from under the shadows by displaying his power, just like other aspirants for the top job. He knows that by mid-2017, which begins in a few days, the initial debate will begin on a successor to the post that everyone covets: Secretary General of the Communist Party of Cuba,” says an elderly member of the National Assembly of People’s Power.
An economist by training, of limited intellect and functionally impaired from the use and abuse of steroids, he is equal parts embarrassment and failure. Recently named head of the Department of Personal Security (DSP), he tried to cement his support within the future government by announcing that by the middle of next year he would raise the salaries of the more than one thousand men who make up his personal army by fifty pesos a month.
It is worth noting, as I wrote some time ago, that the DSP includes 1) a traffic police unit, 2) a film unit, 3) a section devoted to documentation and emigration procedures, 4) a foreign relations department, 5) an anti-terrorist brigade, 6) sharpshooters, 7) divers, 8) explosive experts and 9) a medical department with clinics staffed with doctors, nurses, radiologists, lab technicians, physical and occupational therapists and specialists in other areas. Additionally, it runs 10) a technology and telecommunications division, 11) manufacturing workshops, 12) gymnasia, 13) a very efficient counterintelligence service and even 14) an employment agency that hires personnel who go on to work in the homes of the elite.
But rather than encouraging unanimity, the move is being viewed unfavorably by members of the DSP, who are responsible for protecting, guarding, spying on and taking care of Cuban leaders. Even with the raise they have been promised, they will still earn less than members of the special police unit working in popular tourist sites such as Plaza de San Francisco, Plaza de Armas and Plaza de la Catedral as well as in other areas in Old Havana.
The move has backfired. The discontent is such that soldiers and officers of what was once the most powerful bureau in both the Ministry of the Interior and in Cuba have handed in their resignations. This is not a trivial issue.
This is the last game… there is no direct elimination, no quarterfinals.
Juan Juan Almeida, 15 December 2016 — Thirteen months before his anticipated retirement, General Raúl Castro is setting the agenda for an individual who, even within the ranks of the Communist Party, provokes a rare mix of opposing opinions and strong reactions.
Miguel Mario Díaz-Canel Bermúdez is today the person most likely to be the next President of the Council of State of the Republic of Cuba and curiously has already come up with a series of measures that should guarantee an awkward form of popular approval. continue reading
I do not know if the Cuban government is planning an early transition of power. I anticipated surprises but I don’t know if they are preparing for something else. There is, however, a rumor circulating in the halls of power that a presidential agenda is already being prepared for “comrade Díaz-Canel.”
The new leader’s work schedule includes repealing certain regulations and creating others, such as reforming the country’s financial system, passing a new law on foreign investment, implementing labor reform focused on drastically increasing the quality of the Cuban workforce, generating more private sector employment and ostensibly improving pension benefits.
I asked a few acquaintances about the rumor and this was one response:
“It could be; he is a quiet guy. He keeps to himself and his strategy for getting ahead amounts to keeping his mouth shut. But he is still a good man,” says one.
Another said, “I heard something but I don’t believe he is genuine reformist who suddenly appeared on the scene after lying low. He has no leadership abilities. Díaz-Canel is an opportunist who has molded himself to please Raul Castro.”
But opinions vary. The measures being planned seem quite attractive but, without severing ties to family members of the country’s longtime leaders, I doubt they will do much to improve the island’s financial system.
A new investment law more appropriate to our times, one that offered financial benefits, could incentivize serious investors. But it could also be a magnet for scoundrels and astute money launderers.
Labor reform would increase productivity. Since Cuba has one of highest proportions of elderly in Latin America, improving retirement benefits for pensioners would also provide hope for the larger population. But increasing their income and extending their coverage seems misleading to me. After all, it is the unstoppable emigration of younger people and the decline in the birthrate that has given rise to a progressively aging population, a development which threatens the financial sustainability of the pension system. Its resources are completely inadequate to cover the retirement needs of any elderly Cuban. Increasing the paltry benefits they receive today would be nothing more than a semantic trick. Due to currency devaluation, done to reflect the currency’s true value, any increase would actually be a big decrease.
It is not enough to have an agenda that, on simple inspection, seems designed to confuse the public, add a new element to US-Cuba relations, play with people’s uncertainties and destroy dissident proposals through reforms that seem significant but have very little to offer.
It is difficult to predict but I feel that Díaz-Canel who now serves as vice-president of the Council of State and Council of Ministers, lacks the political will to become the magician who will transform today’s troubling reality into a more pluralistic, inclusive and productive Cuba.
Juan Juan Almeida, 14 November 2016 — At the beginning of October the former Cuban diplomat and ex-president of the Central Bank, Hector Rodrigues Llompart, was arrested. It is said that during the raid on his home in the Casino Deportive neighborhood, several bags of money hidden behind a false wall were seized, but few manage to offer a coherent explanation of this, and for that reason we follow the case.
A family source, who prefers to be surreptitious until the end of the legal process, says that “the soldiers who came said that he was detained for the presumed crime of influence trafficking; but a retired man, age 82 and without access to power, can’t traffic influences, because he doesn’t have any influence. This is no more than another case organized to intimidate the members of the ancien régime. continue reading
“The reality,” he continued, “is that due to his own work experience of many years, Llompart knows how to work the Cuban financial system, and for some time has offered and charged for advice to foreign businessmen who want to invest in Cuba. This is not illegal.” And in addition, I recall that the current wife of the ex-minister works for a foreign firm based in Cuba.
For his part, the prosecuting instructor with access to information says that “the investigation began as a large cluster of errors,” and concluded with a certain irony “without solid proof, that the order that came to us from the Commission for Defense and National Security (CDSN) was only accompanied by a summary plagued with assumptions that arrived signed entirely with pseudonyms.”
Who ordered the arrest?
The arrest of the former Deputy Foreign Minister, former president of the State Committee for Economic Cooperation, former vice president of the National Commission for Economic and Scientific-Technical Cooperation, and former President of the National Bank of Cuba, was not ordered by any police entity, nor by the military prosecutor, but by the CDSN.
The same prosecutor instructor detailed that “the reports warned that the former Cuban leader met regularly with foreign businessmen and some diplomats. Because of that, and because of the excess of pressure exercised by the tenebrous CDSN, the designated judge instructor assumed, as a primary conclusion, that Llompart was giving classified information to some Asian or European special intelligence service.
“The investigation is restricted to avoid leaks, but it is not difficult to deduce that, taking into account the age and name of the accuses, although in reality they have found an obscene amount of saved money, this criminal process will end up with an agreement.”
“It is not an isolated event,” he concludes, “this reflects a new realignment, a capricious period of unknowns where I assure you that there is going to be a repeat of these kinds of criminal actions against well-known names that historically have defended traditional conservative positions, but who oppose the policies of the current leadership of the country.”
Juan Juan Almeida, 26 October 2016 — Under the alleged charge of influence peddling, Héctor Rodríguez Llompart, an ex-Cuban diplomat and the ex-President of the National Bank, was arrested.
“No one knows the motives,” said a source close to the Llompart family. “I think after the Ochoa case, the people running this country lost all the elements of inhibition in human conduct.” continue reading
Retired and 82-years-old, on August 8, 2016, there appeared in Granma an article that was later reproduced for the digital portal, Cudadebate. It was entitled “Viva Fidel,” in allegory to the 90th birthday of the ex-Cuban leader. However, in spite of his advanced age, his copious history and the laudatory writing about Fidel, Llompart was arrested at home, in the Casino Deportivo neighborhood, together with his wife, Patricia Arango.
Llompart, ex-Vice Chancellor, ex-President of the State Committee for Economic Collaboration (CECE), ex-Vice President of the National Commission on Economic and Scientific-Technical Cooperation and ex-President of the National Bank of Cuba, is known for depenalizing the dollar in 1993, and for the implementation of the Cuban Convertible Peso as the second official currency in 1994. Both measures had a significant impact on the economy and on living conditions for Cubans.
According to sources consulted, Patricia Arango, Rodríguez Llompart’s wife, after being freed and subjected to a search of her home, has been confined to her house.
Héctor Rodríguez Llopart is a native of Havana and did not join the Rebel Army during the conflict in the Sierra Maestra. He passed through the Cuban Chancellery, where he was Vice Minister, Minister-President of the CECE, and then the President of the National Bank of Cuba for 10 years.
Juan Juan Almeida, 24 October 2015 — Some news outlets echoed the words of the Vice President in charge of the Council of Provincial Administration for Havana, Isabel Hamze, when she exposed the Havana Government’s reasons for temporarily suspending the issue of new licenses for paladares — private restaurants — and revising those that already exist. Look, this campaign isn’t a matter — like so many have repeated — of a war against the self-employed, the Cuban private initiative, the restaurants or the late-night bars. It’s much more: a field battle, subtle and personal, against some private entrepreneurs who brushed up against power.
It’s true. The municipal governments of Havana affirmed that they had several meetings with 135 owners of Havana paladares and conversed with them, implying a threat, about particular negative tendencies that have appeared in some private restaurants. But yes, according to official figures, in Havana there are more than 500 paladares and 3,000 cafes. So why didn’t they all attend these meetings? continue reading
At the beginning of this month, Cuban authorities ordered some private nightclubs to close, citing allegations of violations of the closing hour (3:00 am), not having parking, hiring artists without going through agencies, permitting the consumption and trafficking of drugs, accepting the practices of prostitution and pimping in the establishments, not respecting Customs regulations in the importation of goods for commercial use, acquiring and smuggling goods, money laundering and investing capital of doubtful origin, not abiding by contractual relationships as established in Law 116 or the Work Code, violating city regulations and evading taxes.
Doing so would be understandable. But they didn’t close Bolahabana or the Ashé Bar, the Shangri Lá and others, where incidents had been reported with some members of the Castro elite. Thus, the measure is simply a demonstration of power.
You remember that in August of last year, Raúl Guillermo Rodríguez Castro, the bodyguard-in-chief (and Raul Castro’s grandson), now with a higher rank, because of a “skirt” problem, insisted on expelling from Cuba, with an indefinite sanction against entering the national territory, the Spanish businessman, Esteban Navarro Carvajal Hernández, owner of the Shangri Lá bar and the Up&Down bar-restaurant.
These particular restaurants are the most visible part of the economic reforms promoted by General Raúl Castro. No one in his right mind can believe that a “Vice President in accordance with a Council of Provincial Administration,” a Cuban official of the fourth category, sweaty, poorly coiffed and with an excellent aptitude for being a police officer, is the person in charge of informing the media that the Cuban Government is deciding to take a step backwards from such a trumpeted opening of the new economic model.
So, why did they do it this way?
The present socio-political situation and the historic advertising caused a considerable increase in the number of travelers that come to the island today. The images of the destruction caused by Hurricane Matthew, although at a too-high price, helped the government monopolize the friendly view of the international community.
The moment is favorable for General Raúl Castro, but politically it’s not sensible to go back to landlord methods.
The day after tomorrow, in the next session of the General Assembly of the United Nations, the presentation of the Cuba Report entitled, “Necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial blockade imposed by the United States on Cuba,” will resume the robbery of owners.
The Cuban government hopes that the majority of the countries’ representatives present will disagree with maintaining a law that they consider a violation of international rights. This is the same government that today hinders, harasses and blockades, without the least respect and in its own backyard, not useful enemies, but a group of entrepreneurs who have bet on private initiative and social improvement.
Juan Juan Almeida, 20 OCtober 2016 — Yet another son of Army Corps General and former Interior Minister Abelardo Colomé Ibarra, alias “Furry,” arrived in southern Florida and decided to say. Nothing unusual in that, if we think back.
Nineteen-year-old Antonio Colomé Hidalgo, son of Furry and Iraida, left Cuba on a flight from Santa Clara province and landed at Miami International Airport at about noon on Friday, October 14.
Antonio was not travelling alone. His final destination was Georgetown, a city in Scott County, Kentucky, where he planned to attend the annual Festival of the Horse, which was being held from October 21 to 23. But upon his arrival in Miami, the purpose of his visit took an unexpected turn: Tony decided to stay and then moved in with some relatives living in Naples, Florida. continue reading
The response from the family has been silence. But the “sudden” decision to settle in the United States does appear not to have been spontaneous. Quite the contrary. It was planned down to the smallest detail.
Citing health problems, General Colomé, resigned as member of the Council of Ministers and from his post as Minister of the Interior on October 21, 2015. His resignation was accepted and, “in recognition of his long revolutionary service, the Council of State agreed to bestow on him the Order for Service to the Fatherland in the First Degree.”
The impression left by an article on the website Cubadebate, the same publication known for ignoring and covering up, is that General Colomé was forced to resign because — along with his successor, Carlos Fernandez Gondín, and other high-ranking officials — he was deeply involved in systemic corruption, diversion of state resources, money laundering and leaking information. A widespread rumor is that, although efforts were made to conceal it, he quickly went from being the accuser to being the accused.
Antonio’s arrival now brings to three the number of Furry’s children who have moved to the United States. I am also told that one of his daughters, Gabriela, is — as the song by Cuban singer and and musician Wilfredo “Willy” Chirino goes — on route and will be arriving soon. It’s only to be expected, given all that has happened.
Juan Juan Almeida, 19 October 2016 — As in the Greek epic, Eusebio Leal, the Captain of a small stronghold of Cuban historians, confronted Brigade General Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Callejas and the Business Administration Group of the Armed Forces (FAR) with lively and poetic oratory. We know that FAR has taken possession of Habaguanex and several business institutions linked to the Office of the Historian of the City of Havana.
This past October 11, from the central patio of the Palacio del Segundo Cabo, during an exhibit that began at 8:30 in the morning and lasted a little more than one hour, Doctor Leal Spengler inspired confidence in his troops, using phrases like: “The Office of the Historian is today stronger than ever”; “We’re facing the storm without any type of fear”; and, “Be calm and serene, let nothing perturb you; I am here.” continue reading
Self-taught and with more awards (national and international) than any other Cuban, Eusebio Leal met with the technicians and directors of the different museums, because – according to his explanation – “Of all the groups with whom I work, the one that shares my goals the most is the one dedicated to museums, the collections, and to that exercise of searching which becomes a necessity for each one of us.”
With vague insinuations of mutiny and not calling for obedience, Leal, a member of the National Assembly’s Commission on International Relations, the Committee for the Eradication of Poverty of the United Nations, the National Geographic Society, the Madrid Royal Academy of History and the Latin American Council for Human Rights encouraged his troops publicly to not allow anyone to intervene and put their hands even on one piece of the museum without being properly prepared, and to not accept “improvised directors although they have a wonderful curriculum of having done other things in life.”
“The inventory” — he harangued them — “to mention only the subject of furniture, needs the knowledge of an antiquarian who has studied the different styles, epochs and models. It’s not just a matter of a table with four legs.” And thus, dressed in his usual grey safari outfit that he wears like a uniform, visibly recovered from the illness that afflicted him and vaunting his oral skills, he answered with irony-charged words the discredited oration, “During the process of transfer, the important thing is the inventory,” that the General-Intervenor Leonardo Ramón Andollo Valdés gives in every meeting with imperial enthusiasm.
“I’m an attorney, and I know what corresponds to me,” he said solemnly, remembering, in an emotional moment, the sentence that the illustrious Cuban patriot and composer of our national anthem, don Pedro Figueredo, pronounced on that fateful afternoon of August in 1870, facing the military tribunal that condemned him to death by firing squad.
“To those like me who admire Leal’s work and the Office of the Historian, we are sad knowing that the final chapter in the struggle to govern Old Havana looks like it won’t go any further,” said a known worker who, having been present at such a restricted meeting, requested anonymity.
Juan Juan Almeida, 6 October 2016 — Santiago de Cuba is, as Cuba’s ruling class puts it, a big headache. Disasters and conflicts are music to the ears of politicians. And a very destructive Hurricane Matthew presented Raul Castro with an excellent opportunity to kill two birds with one stone: He could correct an old mistake while reducing the visibility of a man who has earned many people’s respect.
On the morning of October 25, 2012, Hurricane Sandy passed over the eastern edge of the island. In its wake, the Category 2 storm caused extensive property damage, injured more than a hundred people and resulted in eleven fatalities. People there were terrified but felt abandoned because the nation’s president did not bother to make an appearance in the region. And this oversight brought on a whirlwind of jokes and criticisms. continue reading
Though compelling, the stated reason for the General’s recent visit was less than convincing. No sooner had the hurricane alarm been sounded in the east than the ringleader-in-chief appeared alongside a presidential lackey, doing everything possible to attract attention, both before and during his tour of Guantanamo and Santiago de Cuba provinces.
We all saw a Raul Castro concerned for people’s welfare and reviewing Civil Defense preparations. But then he disappeared. We do not know if he flew back to Havana or rode out the meteorological event in the underground shelter of his home at the end of the Manduley Avenue in Santiago’s Vista Alegre district.
But there is another equally plausible reason for the General’s visit to the region and his name is Lazaro Exposito. The first secretary of the Communist Party in Santiago de Cuba is a man of the people who uses his position to do good. Though still a communist and considered by some to be an opportunist who is not truly committed to reform, his leadership is widely considered to be a success among the locals.
You might recall that in September 2008, when Hurricane Ike was lashing Granma province with winds approaching 100 miles an hour, Lazaro both guided and supported a population in panic. He catapulted to political stardom on national radio (TV had gone off the air) by contradicting then president Fidel Castro by saying, “Commandante, you are in Havana but I am in Bayamo and here the people are afraid.”
This small comment led to his being transferred to Santiago, a city that — due to its heroic, rebellious and hospitable nature — is practically ungovernable by anyone who is not a convivial, party-going native son. But Exposito was able to pull it off. And he would not allow a cyclone to be used to his advantage.
That is why Raul went to Santiago. Because, though he is very close to retirement, Matthew was going to be his hurricane. And to achieve this, he could not leave any loose ends untied.