Diario de las Americas Interview with Ivan Garcia

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After participating in a workshop about investigative journalism in San Diego, California from November 10 to 14, Ivan Garcia spent four days in Miami. During his stay in that city a reporter from Diario de las Americas — a Miami-based Spanish-language newspaper for which he has been a contributor since January of 2013 — did an interview with him which was prominently featured in both the publication’s digital and print editions.

Ivan Garcia, an independent Cuban journalist who writes for Diario de las Americas from Havana, notes that “there has been a change in Cuba” in terms of the types of repression that government agents use against those who dissent from the official line.

Garcia, who covers the grittier aspects of daily life in his country, admitted that the strategy of the Cuban government with respect to the dissident community “is difficult to understand.” He notes, “Some such as members of Martha Beatriz Roca’s group, who live in the provinces and don’t even have enough to eat, are being repressed very severely. These are the worst cases precisely because they are less well-known.”

“But for people like Yoani (Sanchez) and me, who write for well-known publications, we cannot say that we are being repressed, especially not since 2013 when they started granting travel permits.”

Garcia admits that working as an independent journalist means ignoring many of the rules of journalism. “I cannot introduce myself as a journalist to the people who provide the material for my stories. I hang out with and talk to hookers, drug dealers, people from the ‘other Havana.’ I practice another form of journalism because Cuba is a different country.”

He recognizes that the government’s changed attitude towards people like him who write about Cuba for independent foreign news media — even for media outlets such as Radio Martí and TV Martí — is something independent journalists have now but did not have in previous eras when they were subject to beatings or years of imprisonment.

“Many of the things they have been allowing, which might seem like openings and which the regime presents as change, is something independent journalists and opposition figures in Cuba have been asking for since the 1990s,” he says.

The Cuban government’s emigration reform law passed in 2013 makes it possible for many dissidents and most Cuban citizens to travel overseas. For some, however, the frequent trips abroad by members of the opposition are an indication that the government has become dismissive of the role they play.

“This means opponents have to find ways to get stronger politically. Since people began travelling almost two years ago, the only thing we hear about when someone comes back from visiting these places is what they were able to buy.”

Garcia believes the dissident community has been unable to find a political voice on the international stage while at the same time when the government has gained attention for its purported reforms. “It seems to me that in politics two years is enough time. I don’t think anything has been achieved. I feel I have to right to raise some questions because I think the dissident movement represents me,” he says.

The reporter, who has been subject to criticism for exposing the political situation and social degradation of his country, says many in Cuba have been deceived.

“People are tired of the Castros and the embargo, which in Cuba is called the ‘blockade’ because the government uses it as an excuse to explain why nothing works. But they don’t trust the dissidents either. The most compelling dissidents might be the Ladies in White but all the reports of internal divisions within the group have hurt their image.

“The other thing is that society has become fragmented. People have been leaving the country for three generations and this has resulted in a big intellectual gap in every speciality, in every field of knowledge and science. And people will keep choosing to emigrate as long as things are bad economically,” he adds.

In spite of this bleak analysis, however, Garcia believes that Cuba is bound to change. “I have no way of knowing this for sure but I think the country will move from a totalitarian regime to a society where democracy gets introduced little by little,” he says.

He adds that “any future American president, whether Democrat or Republican, will have to try negotiating with Cuba once the Castros are gone. By then we will have seen if there is a dissident who can assume political leadership in a democracy, someone with a serious position, because right now there are a lot of lies.”

For Garcia, the prominent dissidents from the 1990s such as Vladimiro Roca, Martha Beatriz and Félix Bonne among others have not only grown older but “can no longer count on support from the U.S. government — which is to say resources and money — because Washington is banking on the new generation.”

“One of our problems as Cubans is that we have no respect for historical memory. We climb ahead by trampling over corpses. This should not be. There were others who came before us and others before them who were executed by the regime.”

According to Garcia, beyond regime change and the need for a political restructuring, the Cuban situation “requires a period of social recovery that will take about five or six generations because the value system does not exist as can be seen by the absence of even a vocabulary for it among younger Cubans.”

“The impoverishment of Cuba means a girl goes to bed with a man for a beer and is applauded for it. This is really what we do not know how to overcome. It is also a fact that the worship of money distracts people from confronting important issues like the violation of their own rights,” he adds.

Garcia points out that he has been witnessing with increasing frequency any number of Cubans — mostly young people — preparing to travel illegally to the United States in the hopes of benefitting from the Cuban Adjustment Act.

“It has to be amended. To me it no longer makes any sense. Refugee status should be reserved for those who actually suffer from political persecution, not for those who seek protection from the Adjustment Act only to return to the island the next year, which they supposedly had to flee due to political problems.”

“The same thing happens with the law that provides protection to those who arrive on land but returns those Cubans who are intercepted at sea (known as the drive-foot wet-foot policy). This strikes me as being pathetic, not to mention all the deaths it has caused. The Florida Straights is the biggest cemetery in the world.”

This trip to the United States was the first foreign trip in Garcia’s entire life and, although he sees an uncertain future for his country, he concludes, “I don’t see myself anywhere else but Cuba. I believe it is the place I belong. In spite of everything, I like my country.”

Iliana Lavastida Rodríguez, Diario las Américas, November 25, 2014

Photo: Ivan at the Diario las América, on Monday Nov. 17, 2014. distributed through Twitter with the caption: “The great @DesdeLaHabana showing us his from Cuba on a visit to us.”

How Cubans Make Ends Meet: What New York Times Editorials Miss* / Ivan Garcia

vendedor-callejero-en-sagua-la-grande-F-620x330If someone told you would receive a monthly salary of 350 pesos, the equivalent of $15, for a job as a nighttime security guard at a dilapidated school in a country where credit does not exist and that you would need hard currency — currency in which the state does not pay you  — to buy beef, fish and powdered milk, or that a home appliance would cost you six month’s salary, you would probably think he was a compulsive liar, a charlatan or was just trying to find out how people in financial distress make ends meet.

Well, there is such a country. It is called Cuba, a country which for better or worse has been idealized. Some people worship Fidel Castro just for thumbing his nose at the United States.

They tout the government’s favorable statistics (which are fewer and fewer) and like trained parrots repeatedly point to achievements such as universal health coverage and education.

Certainly no one in Cuba asks whether you are a dissident or a revolutionary when it comes to receiving medical care, but differences do exist. While government ministers and generals have access to hospitals comparable to private clinics in advanced countries, most people must rise early and get in line to see a specialist at a hospital badly in need of repair and where equipment and drugs are in short supply.

Education is a controversial subject. Every Cuban knows how to read, write and do basic math. But education comes with a large ideological component. In addition to rules of etiquette such as how to say “buenos días,” high school students quickly learn how to disarm an AK 47 rifle.

Pursuing a university education means learning how to hide what you think. It is virtually impossible for a known dissident to study journalism or international relations, fields in which ideology and loyalty to the regime are essential.

But after pointing to achievements in health, education, sports and culture as well as to the tenacity of having stood up to “Yankee imperialism” ninety miles from Cuban shores, Castro’s sycophants are left without solid arguments.

Are political rights not important? Why can we not go on strike to demand better pay? Or to force the government to implement its single currency policy? Or to lower the prices of gasoline, home appliances and cars?

These questions are thorns in the sides of the regime’s defenders. But back to our original topic, let’s try to describe to a clueless foreigner how Cubans make ends meet.

Reinier is a custodian at a high school in the Havana neighborhood of La Vibora. He works every other night as a security guard there and is paid 352 Cuban pesos a month. [Roughly equivalent to $14-$15 US]

In reality his job is just a cover. “It’s because of the section chief (of the neighborhood police) who’s over me that I got this job. I had already received two citations for petty crimes. If these add up, they can sentence you to two years in prison. I became a custodian to keep a low profile,” says Reinier.

He talks about sleeping on the job. “I have to make sure they don’t steal the televisions, light bulbs or some old computers. If there weren’t security guards here, the place would be robbed. I also have to make sure that couples, both heterosexual and homosexual, don’t break in and make love in the school courtyard. After a few incidents like this at two in the morning, I started sleeping on a table all night,” he confesses.

“How do you make it to the end of the month on your salary?” I ask.

“Salaries in Cuba are a joke,” he says. “I get by because I work as a bookie for the ’bolita’ (illegal lottery). I make the rounds twice daily. I make between 250 and 400 Cuban pesos a day.”

You might think Renier is an exception but, if you ask most Cubans, 90% would say they make extra money in shady deals and under-the-table transactions.

Yolanda, an engineer, sells coffee and fruit juice at her workplace and is thinking of expanding her business. “I am going to start offering lunches and candies. My salary is 512 Cuban pesos a month ($21). I make triple that selling juice and coffee.”

Reinier and Yolanda do not pay taxes on their earnings. To live comfortably, others dip their hands into the state safe or steal anything of value within arm’s reach.

Sixto is a business economist whose main job is to provide cover for his bosses’ embezzlement. “The books have to add up in case there is an audit. Accounting tricks and financial manipulation are routinely used to hide theft. They pay me between 5 and 10 convertible pesos a day (about $5 to $10) for my labors. I also get a basket of food whenever I need it,” he says.

Rogelio, a city bus driver, says the only way he can make ends meet “is to take 200 to 300 Cuban pesos a day from the fare box. Some take more, others less, but all the drivers do it,”  he notes.

This is how Cuba works. With unwritten rules. With theft, fraud and embezzlement from state enterprises. Just below a layer of sanctimoniousness lies the reality. People eat, relax and shop thanks to hard currency remittances sent by relatives from overseas. Or they help themselves to state resources.

That anonymous mass of Cubans — with their schemes for surviving in a country where the average wage is $20, a plasma screen TV costs $800 and a Peugeot 508 goes for $300,000 — is waiting for a New York Times editorial that acknowledges them. Now that Cuba is fashionable.

Iván García

Photo: In Sagua la Grande, a section of Villa Clara about 185 miles east of Havana, a local resident ekes out a living selling produce on the street from a converted tricycle. NBC News.

*Translator’s note: In October and November of 2014 the New York Times published a series of editorials critical of American policies and actions towards Cuba and praising Cuba’s efforts to combat Ebola in West Africa.

3 December 2014

An Old Castro Weapon Still in Operation / Ivan Garcia

"Long Live the CDRs" (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution)

Renato’s family emigrated to the United States on October 3 but that did not stop them from having some weak communal soup, drinking cheap rum and dancing the timba on a block of Reparto Sevillano south of Havana on the night of the 27th, the eve of the anniversary of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR).*

There were photos of Renato with the president of the CDR and the person in charge of surveillance, a guy with connections to the special services. As a momento of the festivities, they were shown with their cell phones.

Thanks to a stereo on loan from a bookie of an illegal lottery known as the “bolito,” or ball, a round of boleros began after midnight and ended with “Lágrimas Negras,” (Black Tears) the anthem of Cuban emigres.

Have times changed? Yes. Are the Castro brother’s quasi-state institutions more tolerant? No. The ongoing twenty-five-year-old economic crisis has led to a political sleight of hand in the strategies used by the Communist autocrats.

Now the goal is to generate enemy greenbacks that Cubans living in the United States generously send to their poor relations in Cuba. The CDR, the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), the Young Communist League (UJC) and other state institutions have thrown off their heavy ideological ballast in favor of the political pragmatism currently being practiced in Cuba.

It is not unusual for a successful Cuban prostitute living in Europe or someone who has risked his life crossing the treacherous Florida straights to return after a few years and take part in a celebration sponsored by the CDR in his or her old neighborhood.

It was not always this way. On the night of September 28, 1960 — amid the sound of firecrackers — Fidel Castro set a system of collective surveillance on every block. Democratic civil society was dissolved until further notice.

Cuba was divided into “revolutionaries” and “worms.” Institutions were militarized. Obsessive spying into citizens’ private lives became routine. Everything was of interest to the special services, from how you lived and what you ate to the marital infidelities of members of the party and armed forces.

Betrayals and anonymous phone calls denouncing neighbors flooded the switchboards of police precincts. Cuba had entered its worst phase in the Cold War.

The CDR was and still is one of the primary instruments of control and cooperation for the Department of State Security. Thanks to its informants it was able to detain thousands of Castro opponents in April 1961 in advance of the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Though it still keeps an eye on dissidents, after fifty-four years the CDR is now an organization in obvious decline. Once upon a time its members organized scrap drives, were involved in public health campaigns, conducted nighttime neighborhood watch patrols, did volunteer work and taught political science courses.

It spite of its decline it remains the governmental institution with the largest membership in the country: around seven million people. Everyone is automatically enrolled at age fourteen.

The committee on each block maintains a book known as the “Directory of Addresses” in which the names of everyone who lives on the block are scrupulously recorded.

If you move, you are required to notify the the committee so that the new address can be registered in the book. Anyone visiting the home of a neighbor must also be reported to the CDR.

According to CDR reports the police detain and return to their provinces of origin Cubans from other areas who are living in Havana illegally.

Perhaps its most important current function is to exert civilian oversight on those suspected of illegal activities and corruption, but especially over activities by opponents and independent journalists.

Individual CDR committee heads provide data on all citizens residing their areas to the local police chief or investigators from the UJC or Cuban Communist Party (PCC), and regularly provide information to State Security.

On individual blocks there are other anonymous informers. They are responsible for checking and reporting on a dissident’s routine and visitors.

Generally, they are bored retirees or diehard Castro supporters. They take down license plate numbers of people visiting a dissident’s home and go through the trash cans of opponents looking for food containers, bottles of perfume and empty beverage bottles that might indicate “an expensive lifestyle.”

At a ceremony last year in Havana’s Convention Center, Raul Castro stated that the CDR must employ new tactics to combat dissident activity.

The general asserted that “the enemy will never stop working, will never change, so the organization must alter its strategies.” The regime is trying to carry out a bizarre course correction on a hybrid of the worst form of state capitalism combined with inefficient and authoritarian Marxist socialism.

He is trying to build bridges to the new breed of émigrés using any means possible. Though a large segment is unsympathetic to the regime, they also want nothing to do with political dissidents.

Not even megalomaniacal dictators like Mussolini or Hitler had groups of people in every vicinity who betrayed neighbors and mounted systematic acts of repudiation against opponents.

Though it has become something of a formality, the CDR remains an effective weapon for the regime. In terms of controlling those who opposed his revolution, its creation was one of Fidel Castro’s indisputable achievements.

Ivan Garcia

Photo: Cubanet

Translator’s note: The CDR is a network of neighborhood committees across Cuba. Committee heads monitor the activities of every person on their respective blocks. Yearly neighborhood parties to commemorate the organization’s founding are centered around a “caldosa,” or communal soup, to which residents are expected to contribute.

22 November 2014

Not Many Black or Mixed-race 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