1994 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
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
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.
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
On September 1, 2014 the Customs Service of the Republic of Cuba will begin enforcing new regulations intended to combat illegal trafficking of merchandise by relatives, friends and “mules”* through airports and port facilities.
It’s one more turn of the screw. Every year since 2011 new regulations have been put in place designed to halt the illegal importation of goods destined for families and private businesses on the island.
In Spring 2012 the customs service began charging ten dollars for every kilo above the twenty-kilo limit for personal baggage. For parcel post the charge was ten dollars per kilo above the five-kilo limit.
According to Onelia, a customs official, “The new measures are intended to halt the trade in goods brought in by mules.” Continue reading
Under a brightly colored umbrella, a representative of Gaviota, a tourism chain, the property of businessmen in the Cuban military, offers an inclusive leisure package for the summer.
The bureau of reservations is nestled in an old parking lot of a strip mall in 5th Avenue and 42nd, Miramar, to the west of Havana.
It is Saturday. There is a festive atmosphere: Kiosks selling popcorn, sandwiches, and frozen pizzas that are heated in the microwave and taste like plastic. Meanwhile, flat screen televisions are airing the World Cup soccer matches in Brazil.
There has to be music. Randomly situated speakers amplify too loudly the current hit, Bailando, by Enrique Iglesisas, Descemer Bueno, and People of the Zone.
In the tourism bureau everything is a hustle. Over a table, public pamphlets of “all-inclusive” hotels in Varadero, Cayo Coco, or Santa Lucia.
Past nine-thirty in the morning they begin to see clients. The personnel are friendly with Colgate smiles and a commercial diction learned through quick marketing courses. Continue reading
There have been so many escapes by Cuban baseball players and boxers that they have stopped being news. The stories behind some of these defections could make a Hollywood script.
From the late-90’s land and sea odyssey of Havana pitcher Orlando “Duque” Hernandez, who signed with the New York Yankees, to the unusual escape of the fabulous shortstop Rey Ordóñez, who jumped over a wall during his team’s warmup in a tournament in Buffalo, New York, in 1993.
Within the plot of an escape there is a blend of diverse ingredients. There’s a bit of everything: human traffickers, drug cartels, and sports scouts.
Some rafter-ballplayers have tried escaping several times. When caught, they opt for the mea culpa traditional in authoritarian societies. Continue reading
In Havana, the good medical specialists always have at hand two kinds of treatment for their patients.
“If it is a person with family abroad or of high purchasing power, I propose that he go to the international pharmacy to buy the medications in foreign currency because they are of higher quality and more effective. Those who cannot, then I prescribe the treatment approved by the ministry of Public Health with medicines of low quality manufactured in Cuban laboratories or of Chinese origin,” reports Rigoberto (name changed), an allergist with more than two decades of experience.
When you visit one of the 20 international pharmacies located in the Cuban capital, you can find a wide range of medicines patented by pharmaceutical companies of the United States.
From eye drops, syrups, tablets and ointments. Their prices instill fear. Lidia, an engineer, browses the shelves meticulously in search of Voltaren eye drops, indicated by the ophthalmologist to begin a treatment of her mother who underwent cataract surgery. Continue reading
It was Spring 1980 in Havana. Before dawn a group of policemen hurriedly entered the cells of the Eastern Consolidated prison, known as the “pizzeria.” After lining the inmates up, their backs to the wall along a narrow corridor, an official of the Ministry of Interior spoke in a loud voice and without beating around the bush.
He was blunt. “You can get on a bus that’s waiting outside and leave for the United States, or within three days your prison sentences will be doubled. You choose,” he said.
“Imagine, I was sentenced to 20 years in prison for murder,” recalls Randolfo, sitting in a park in the Havana neighborhood of La Vibora. “Going to the U.S. was my passport to freedom.
“I don’t know if my sins can be purged. I stole, killed and caused harm. Since I was sixteen-years-old, prison had been like home. In January 1980 I was transferred from the prison at La Cabaña to Eastern Consolidated, which was still under construction. Before the incident at the Peruvian embassy, which took place before the stampede at the port of Mariel, I was in a prison cell. I didn’t think twice about leaving,” recalls Randolfo. Continue reading
Eight in the morning. On the ground floor of the Focsa building – Cuba’s Empire State – on M between 17 and 19 Vedado, in a shop between the Guiñol theatre and a beaten-up bar at the entrance to the Scherezada club, a queue of about 15 people are waiting to enter the internet room.
It is one of 12 in Havana. They are few, and badly distributed for a city with more than two and a half million inhabitants. In El Vedado and Miramar there are four, two in each neighbourhood. Nevertheless, 10 de Octubre, the municipality with the most inhabitants in the island, doesn’t have any at all.
Poorer municipalities like San Miguel, Cotorro and Arroyo Naranjo (the metropolitan district with the greatest incidence of acts of violence in the country), don’t have anywhere to connect to the internet either.
On June 4, 2013, they opened 118 internet rooms for the whole island. According to an ETECSA (Telecommunications Company of Cuba) official, around 900,000 users have accessed the service. Not very impressive figures. Continue reading
February 2006. Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez in one of their many meetings in Havana. From La Vanguardia
Not in his wildest dreams did Fidel Castro think he would gain political control of and derive economic benefit from a nation nine times bigger than Cuba, with two and a half times the population and with the biggest oil reserves on the planet.
Cuba’s ideological colonisation of Venezuela could go down in history as a work of art in terms of political domination. The bearded chap never ceases to surprise us.
He wasn’t a minor autocrat. For better or worse, he was always a political animal. Charlatan, student gangster and manipulator, and always audacious.
He showed his clear inability to create riches and establish a solid and coherent economy. Before he came to power, at the point of a rifle in January 1959, Cuba was the second largest economy in Latin America. Continue reading
It’s hard to bury faith in any God, ideology, or vices. For others, like Vladimir, the passion for the Soviet era, like old rockers, never dies.
Son of Communist parents, he studied at universities in the former USSR. He speaks Russian like a Muscovite and still reads Gorki or the poems of Yevstushenko in the original language.
On a pine shelf he has a bunch of Soviet writers in the style of Borís Polevói, Nikolái Ostrovski, Mijaíl Shólojov or Ilya Ehrenburg, who wrote the epic of the Red Army in World War II.
Vladimir is not considered a fanatic. In his room there are no canvases of Stalin, Marx or Lenin . “The USSR may seem like an old newspaper. But it is not dead yet. In Cuba people don’t find Russian cartoons or corned beef strange. It is in the power structures where still latent are certain mechanisms of the Soviet era.”
Dismantling this shed is an arduous task. A vertical government, omnipresent secret police, a broad sector of the planned economy and the usual unanimity of approving laws in the boring national parliament, are vestiges of the official Soviet Cuba that resists death.
Cubans like Vladimir worked for years on building institutions modeled on the Soviet Union. From the Constitution to the Pioneer organizations. Continue reading