Not many negro or mestizo businessmen in Havana / Ivan Garcia

Cuba-Mar-2011-620x330Just as with most successful businesses in Cuba, the owners of Leyenda Habana, an elegant restaurant in El Cerro, surrounded by ranch houses, are white.

Two miles to the east of Leyenda Habana, in the poor and mostly black neighbourhood of San Leopoldo, the iconic private La Guarida restaurant, where US congressmen and the Queen of Spain have dined, also has a white proprietor. And, unless something has changed, the chef is black.

I invite you to visit glamorous bars like El Encuentro in Linea and L, Vedado: Shangrilá, in Playa, or El Slopy’s in Vibora Park, very near to La Palma; central crossroads in Arroyo Naranjo.

Apart from being comfortable and with efficient service, the common denominator is that the owners are white. Black people work in the kitchen, or, if they are very qualified, and look good, they dispense daiquiris and mojitos behind the bar.

The waitresses usually are white, young girls with beautiful faces and spectacular bodies. Could be pale-skinned mulattas who spend a fortune on straightening their hair to be similar to many white women.

The owners of rental properties with swimming pools or luxury apartments are also white. Or the owners of fleets of American cars and jeeps from the 40’s and 50’s, fitted with modern diesel engines, used as private taxis in Havana.

Ignacio, who has sun-tanned white skin, owns six automobiles and three Willys jeeps, made sixty years ago in the Detroit factories. Every day he turns over 600 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC).

“Part of the money I invest in gasoline and in maintenance of the cars. I make juicy profits, but my business is in a judicial limbo as it is not something envisaged in the self-employment regulations. For the moment, the government lets us do it,” he indicated while he drinks a German beer.

When you ask him why it is that in the most successful private businesses, 90% of the owners are white, he replies: “Several reasons, ranging from subtle or open racism on the part of many business people, to economic reality, in that black Cubans are the ones with the lowest standard of living and receive fewer remittances from family abroad.”

Carlos, a sociologist, considers that not all of the blame for negroes and mestizos not occupying prominent positions in private businesses can be attributed to the Fidel Castro regime.

“This is a long-running story. When in 1886 they abolished slavery in Cuba, the negroes and mestizos started off at a disadvantage. They didn’t have property, knowledge or money to invest in businesses. They moved from being slaves to wage earners. They gained prestige and a better position in society by way of sport, music and manual trades.”

According to the sociologist, “The Revolution involved the negroes in the process, dressing them up in olive green and sending them to risk their lives in African wars. But in key positions in the economy, politics or audiovisual media, there was an obvious white supremacy.”

For Orestes, an economist, “We cannot overlook the detail that 80% of the Cubans who have done well in exile are whites. The first wave of emigrants to Florida were educated white people, nearly all business people with capital. And those who left without money, thanks to their knowledge and hard work, moved forward and triumphed in the US society.

And he adds that, in the subsequent waves in 1965, 1980 and 1994, there was a larger percentage of negroes and mestizos, but they were ill-prepared and they worked in poorly paid jobs in the  United States. “And because of that, they sent less money to their poor families in Cuba,” the economist explained.

The situation was capable of change. Now, dozens of sportsmen, mulattos and negroes, play abroad and some earn six figure salaries.

Although José Dariel Abreu, who plays for the Chicago White Sox and earns $68 million over seven years, in theory cannot invest one cent in Cuba, because of the embargo laws, one way or another, thousands of dollars get to his relations in the island and they are able to open small businesses in their provinces.

In spite of the fact that the majority of the owners of currently successful businesses in the capital are white, reggaeton singers, jazz players, musicians who commute between Cuba, the United States and Europe, have opened businesses or have provided finance for their family members.

The reggaeton performer Alexander, the write Leonardo Padura or the volleyball player Mireya Luis, among others, have opened bars, restaurants and private cafes with part of their earning in hard money.

But they are the few. Most of the negroes or mestizos who have permits to work for themselves, work twelve hours filling matchboxes, repairing shoes or open up a small shop in the the entrance to their house, with no grand pretensions, trying to earn 200 or 300 pesos a day.

Nearly always the competition from white people with bigger wallets gobble up the self-employed negroes or mulattos. Leonardo, a negro resident in La Vibora, in 2010 put up a jerry-built stall made of sheet metal painted ochre in the garden of his house.

“Things went well. Until in the corner, by the house, a relation of a general opened a modern, well-stocked cafeteria. From then on, my earnings have collapsed. I am thinking of closing,” he says. The owner and employees of the business competing with Leonardo are white.

Although in this case, the advantage didn’t lie in skin colour. Because in Cuba, if, apart from having money, you have a relative who has the medals of a general, that will open many doors. Including those which should remain shut.

Iván García

Translated by GH

13 September 2014

Reporting from San Diego / Ivan Garcia

The Institute of the Americas is located on the campus of San Diego State University

There are Cuban dissidents and independent journalists who, since the emigration and travel reform was enacted by Raul Castro in 2013, have already accumulated some trips abroad. This has not been the case with Ivan, who agreed to travel to the United States because it was for a workshop about investigative journalism, organized by the Institute of the Americas in La Jolla, San Diego, California. And he accepted because it was a short stay of one week. We offer the first of three reports sent from San Diego. (Tania Quintera [Ivan’s mother]). 

Monday, November 10

I made the trip from Havana to Miami without problems. The Miami is airport is a city, I had to walk nearly a kilometer from the gate to passport control. At both customs I was treated well. At the Miami airport I met a former neighbor from La Vibora who worked there.

I took advantage of having to wait three hours for the flight to San Diego to buy a laptop at one of the airport stores (I left mine in Cuba because it is defective). It cost me $200, has Windows 8 and an English keyboard.

The flight to San Diego was long. The plane, a little uncomfortable. The seats were too close together. This is the best way I’ve found for airlines to make money: put people in a tube as if they were cattle. Although the service and food were good. Continue reading

Old dissidents in Cuba: Between homelessness and forgetting / Ivan Garcia

Gladys Linares Blanco, age 72

The elderly are the big losers in the timid economic reforms of Cuba’s General-President. Thousands who once applauded Fidel Castro’s long speeches in the Plaza of the Revolution, or fought in the civil wars in Africa, today survive however they can.

There they are. Selling newspapers, peanuts, or single cigarettes. Others have it worse. Senile dementia has overtaken them and they beg for alms or dig through the dumpsters.

But even harder is life for an old dissident. Do the names Vladimiro Roca Antunez, Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello and Felix Bonne Carcassés mean nothing today? In the 90s they were the most active opponents betting on democracy and political and economic freedoms. In the summer of 1997 they drafted a lucid document titled “The Nation Belongs to Everyone.”

For this coherent and inclusive legacy they received verbal and physical violence on the part of the regime and its secret police. And they went to jail. Seventeen years after the launch of “The Nation Belongs to Everyone,” already old and with a litany of ailments, they are barely surviving. Continue reading

Havana: English for Everyone / Ivan Garcia

Britannia School, Havana

In a city of two and a half million inhabitants such as Havana — its streets riddled with potholes, its garbage cans overflowing, its hydraulic networks shattered and a layer of soot covering the facades of its homes and commercial buildings — it seems anachronistic to see language schools teaching British English.

At the corner of Graciela street and Santa Catalina, a four-lane avenue lined with Jacaranda trees in the Tenth of October district twenty-five minutes from the center of the capital, stands a privately-run English language school with courses of study developed by the UK’s prestigious Cambridge University.

It is headquartered in a large house with air-conditioned classrooms and flat screen TVs mounted to the walls. It offers courses for children 4 to 11 years old and adolescents up to age 18. It also offers specialized prep courses for international exams. Continue reading

Crisis Among Cuban Dissidents? / Ivan Garcia

Antonio G. Rodiles, Regina Coyula and Ivan Garcia on a panel about independent journalism in Cuba

The egos and grandstanding are projecting an uncertain outlook within the peaceful opposition in Cuba. It’s like a symphony orchestra without a conductor, where musicians play their own tunes.

It’s not for lack of political programs that Cuban activists cede space. They are overflowing with ideas, projects and platforms aimed at democratic change. Some are more consistent than others.

And although all platforms and political parties are entitled to have their doctrines and programs, the reality in Cuba has demonstrated the ineffectiveness of dissident theses.

Born deformed as a matter of genesis. They have no popular support. There are ever fewer reports about them in the Florida media, the Spanish press and the BBC. Continue reading

Of Jails In Cuba / Ivan Garcia

A "combatant" as Cuban prison guards are called, watches over prisoners working in their new uniforms.

For Saul prison is like his second home. He celebrated his 63rd birthday behind bars, fabricating cement and gravel blocks for a Cuban state enterprise called Provari, which makes everything from bricks, tiles and mattresses to insecticides and sells them for hard currency.

Saul knows the island’s penitentiary map like few do. Since 19 years of age he has been held in the main prisons: La Cabana, Chafarinas in Guantanamo, Boniato in Santiago de Cuba and the jails built by Fidel Castro like the Combinado del Este in Havana, Aguica in Matanzas and Canaleta in Ciego de Avila.

“In all, since I was a prisoner for the first time in 1970 because of the Vagrancy Law. I have worked cutting cane, in construction, making tourism furniture or insecticides with hardly any physical protection,” comments Saul, who has been a free man since April. Continue reading

Well-Being in Cuba Hides Behind a Visa / Ivan Garcia

Cuba-Tourist_Card (1)Although Cecilio, an intensive care doctor, knows it will be hard spending two years in a desolate corner of Africa — a continent now synonymous with Ebola and death — there is no other option at hand for remodeling his dilapidated home in a poor neighborhood of Havana.

Nor does he have the legal tools to file a lawsuit against the Cuban government for paying him only a little more than 25% of his actual salary. Nor does he want to.

“What can I do? Take to the streets and protest unfair labor practices? I am not a hero, not by a long shot. It’s true that the government takes the lion’s share of your salary when you are working in an overseas medical mission. But as doctors we have it so bad here —we earn only sixty to seventy dollars a month — that, with the money we make on these missions, we can solve a lot of our long-standing financial problems. After two years in Africa I will be able to make repairs to my house and build a room for my daughter, who is pregnant,” says Cecilio.

This feeling of not being able to alter one’s fate leads to fierce apathy and a supreme sanctimoniousness, which have been the hallmarks of a wide segment of the population for fifty-five years. Continue reading

Summer Vacations in Cuba / Ivan Garcia

Photo: Two Brothers campsite in Viñales, Pinar del Río province, by Cuba-Junky.

Raudel and his family have already packed their bags for a six-night stay at a campsite in Mayabeque province near Havana.

They saved some of the money their relatives in Miami send them every month and rented an air-conditioned cabin in Los Cocos along the north shore of Havana.

“It costs us 106 CUC with breakfast. We bring our own food to save money. It’s the best option we could find given our budget,” says Raudel.

Depending on the currency and how much of it you have, there are a variety of vacation options available in Cuba this summer. Having convertible pesos (CUC) — popularly known as chavitos and used by the state to pay monthly bonuses of 10 to 35 CUC to employees in key economic sectors such as tourism, telecommunications and civil aviation — certainly makes a difference.

Others ways of obtaining chavitos include operating a small private business or receiving dollars, euros or other forms of hard currency from relatives overseas.

Continue reading

The Day the People of Havana Protested in the Streets / Ivan Garcia

1000472_474759539275644_1332749336_n1994 was an amazing year. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the disappearance of the USSR had been the trigger for the beginning in Cuba of the “Special Period in Times of Peace,” an economic crisis which lasted for 25 years.

We returned to  a subsistence economy. The factories shut down as they had no fuel or supplies. Tractors were replaced by oxen. And the power cuts lasted 12 hours a day.

The island entered completely into an era of inflation, shortages and hunger. To eat twice a day was a luxury. Meat, chicken and fish disappeared off the menu. People ate little, and poorly. Malnutrition caused exotic illnesses like beri-beri and optic neuritis. Continue reading

Alan Gross: Trapped in a Cold War Tale / Ivan Garcia

Alan Gross (b 1949, NY) before his detention and now.

In the Zamora neighbourhood, next to the Carlos J. Finlay military hospital, in the Marianao Council area, in Eastern Havana, many of the neighbours don’t know anything about the background of Allan Gross, the US contractor, who is stuck there.

It’s a poor district, with little houses, dusty streets and broken pavements. The midday heat finds it deserted. Not even the street dogs can bring themselves to walk over the hot asphalt.

People there take shelter from the mid-day sun inside their houses, or, inside a bare private cafe, put together in a house entrance hall, they talk about the latest TV serial, José Dariel Abreuthe’s 31st home run with the Chicago White Sox, or Barcelona’s next sign-ups.

Around here is where you find out about the latest violent crime which happened the previous night and, if the person you are talking to trusts you, he’ll take you round to the house where one of the neighbours will discreetly sell you some trashy industrial bits and pieces and Chinese cell phones. Continue reading

Chatting with One of Havana’s Entrepreneurs / Ivan Garcia

View from the Tower Restaurant in the Fosca Building

View from the Tower Restaurant in the Fosca Building

Humberto, a seventy-four-year old man, has the personality of both an entrepreneur and a smooth talker. At the moment he is relaxed and happy, willing to chat while having a Heineken and without having to keep track of the time.

And that is what he is doing. In the bar of the La Torre restaurant on the twenty-ninth floor of the Focsa building, Humberto is enjoying a very cold beer as he munches on bites of Gouda cheese and Serrano ham while looking out over the city.

At a height of 400 feet Havana looks like an architectural model. Staring at the intense blue of the sea creates the sensation of a bar floating in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

Up here things look different. There is no awareness of the poor condition of the streets and buildings below or the scramble of thousands of Havana residents looking for food at farmers’ markets in order to be able to prepare a decent meal.

Humberto knows how hard life in Cuba is. “But I like to enjoy myself and to spend money eating well, going out with beautiful women and drinking good-quality beverages,” he says.

Continue reading

What the Soviet Union Left Cubans / Ivan Garcia

Pro-Soviet books by the English Dean Hewlett Johnson (1874-19xx). Photo from Havana, 1945.

To this day, in the universal history books in junior high or high schools in Cuba, the Soviet theme is handled with kid gloves.

They recall its founding father Vladimir Illych Lenin, the epic of the Second World War with its 20 million dead (old data, it was 27 million and more than a few died from a bullet in the neck from their own comrade, or in a dark Gulag), and the selfless help of the USSR in the first years of the olive green revolution.

To Zoraida, a third year high school student and a lover of history, when I ask her about that nation made up of fifteen European and Asian republics, without hardly taking a breath, let loose with a tirade right out of the school books.

“The October Revolution was founded in 1917 by Lenin, and despite the aggression of the western nations, it established itself as a great world power. It was the country with the most deaths in World War II, 20 million (the error persists), and it had to fight alone against the fascist hordes. The United States and its allies were forced to open the Second Front in Normandy, faced with the rapid advance of the Red Army,” she responds with the usual pride of a student who applies herself. Continue reading