Fifty-four years, seven months and eleven days after that January 3, 1961— the day on which American diplomatic personnel closed their embassy — seventy-three year old Denis Sentizo, a heavy-set African-Cuban with an easy smile, did not want to miss a historic moment: seeing the stars and stripes waving again against his country’s intense blue sky.
“Right now I can’t help but think about my father, may he rest in peace,” says Santizo. “He worked as a kitchen helper at the US embassy in the 1950s. In 1961 the embassy closed and he couldn’t find another job, so he had to go cut sugarcane in Camagüey (500 kilometers east of Havana). He died in 1991 and would have wanted to live to see this moment. Given our geography and history, this promises more advantages than disadvantages.” Continue reading
Ivan Garcia, 21 August 2015 — When you tell Felicia, aged 76, a housewife, that with that “strange and complicated gadget” which you operate with your fingertips she can make an audiovisual connection with her son who lives in Miami, she shakes her head as if to say you are pulling my leg.
Tablets, laptops and smartphones, seem to her like things from science fiction. She is convinced that her rough fingers can destroy those little toys with their flat screens.
Felicia prefers to sit down on the sofa in her house and watch five hours of Brazilian, Turkish and South Korean soaps or costume dramas produced in the States.
Right now, she is waiting anxiously for the local messenger who is going to let her rent various episodes of Game of Thrones. The weekly packet is an audiovisual collection of films, serials and foreign soaps downloaded by private entrepreneurs and then marketed; it’s a primitive local leisure industry. Continue reading
Ivan Garcia, 16 August 2015 — Twenty-three-year-old Liudmila spent the evening of August 13 dancing the guanicheo —Cuba’s latest dance craze — at a discotheque in the quiet neighborhood of Miramar in western Havana with her latest romantic conquest: a tall young man from Kansas with a wispy red beard who came to Cuba to collect information for a documentary on marine species and ended up falling for a lighthearted and cheerful girl from a tough neighborhood in the old part of the city.
“It was great. First we went to the Casa de la Musica in Miramar and then to a jazz set at the La Zorra nightclub on La Rampa. Now we’re here, waiting for the flag raising ceremony and Kerry’s speech,” says Liudmila, seated on a sidewalk along the Malecon. Her American boyfriend, Roger, is trying to take some photos of the crowd gathered here to celebrate the historic event. Continue reading
Ivan Garcia, 15 August 2015 — In Luis García Berlanga’s impressive 1953 film, Welcome Mr. Marshall, the mayor, priest and townspeople of Villar del Río await the visit of George Marshall, the American secretary of state from 1947 to 1949. In the film, Marshall is believed to be carrying in his briefcase a blank check, drawn on funds from his famous plan, to promote the recovery of dictator Francisco Franco’s Spain. On August 14, 2015, at eight-thirty in the morning, John Forbes Kerry, the man from Obama’s team who is responsible for conducting US foreign policy, landed at José Martí Airport in Havana.
It is yet to be seen what Kerry is carrying in his suitcase. It is very likely he will not be coming to Havana just to hoist the Stars and Stripes, have a few of mojitos and recite the usual mechanical speeches and diplomatic niceties so common in modern politics.
According to some diplomatic sources, Kerry will be toting his verbal shotgun, loaded with subtle rebukes to violations of human rights and political freedoms by the Castro brothers’ military dictatorship. Continue reading
Ivan Garcia, 13 August 2015 — When Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz turns 89 today, probably after the toast, the Cuban caudillo will take time to remember his hectic life.
To come to know Castro’s true profile, not the eyewash sold to us by the historiography of the regime, will be a monumental task of historians, academics and psychologists after his death.
Angel Castro, his father, was a Spanish soldier who fought against the Liberation Army. After settling in Cuba he became a landowner, entrepreneur and cheat who, every night, openly and illegally ran a fence around his property. Continue reading
Ivan Garcia, 6 August 2015 — Engineers Odalys and Anayanci were friends until Autumn 2012 when a training seminar in China unleashed a conflict marked by intrigue, damaging reports and even witchcraft.
“It was huge,” says Sara, an employee of ETECSA, the state telecommunications monopoly. “The department head had to choose among four engineers for the trip. The sniping, the dirty tricks and the humiliations were at a championship level. A pitched gun battle breaks out in the office whenever there is a seminar or scholarship overseas.”
Travel in Cuba is synonymous with status. If offers a chance to make a few hundred dollars and pick up a few things to alleviate the shortages of harsh daily life under tropical socialism. Continue reading
Ivan Garcia, 9 August, 2015 — Although the official narrative is still full of tiresome rhetoric about a prosperous and sustainable socialism and General Raul Castro often repeats the slogan “Cuba is a revolution of the humble for the humble,” real life is following another path.
While kingpins and warlords in epaulets do linguistic somersaults in an attempt to promote a society supposedly created for the people, those who work for the state are the ones whose lives are hard.
The man or woman on the street sees it all as ancient history: the long speeches by Fidel Castro, the pugilistic rhetoric of ten US administrations, the heroic and frightening language, the improvisation and an economy based on rationing. Continue reading
Ivan Garcia, Havana, 1 July 2015 — In a dimly lit butcher shop directly across the street from the Passionist church in Havana’s La Vibora neighborhood, two boys play a game of dice on the counter. An assistant calmly sharpens a pair of knives while the butcher, shirtless and sitting on a rickety stool outside, works on a year-old crossword puzzle in Bohemia magazine.
On a blackboard there is an announcement: Chicken for fish* and ground meat. A few retirees line up with their shopping bags and take shelter from the sweltering heat under an eave.
It is reminiscent of a surrealist Chagall painting. “Neither the chicken nor the ground meat has arrived but the truck could arrive at any time,” the butcher informs the customers without looking up from his puzzle. Continue reading
Ivan Garcia, 4 August 2015 — In Latin American literature, magical realism has weighty authors like Alejo Carpentier, Arturo Úslar Pietri, or the genius of Aracataca, Gabriel García Márquez, who with his fictional town of Macondo portrayed a continent of rascals, loafers, and pompous leaders.
In politics, magical realism has its ultimate leader in Fidel Castro. The Cuban elder has no match when it comes to selling smoke.
Probably only the sinister Adolf Hitler overshadowed him in the art of enchanting an entire people and setting them marching and applauding. The real economy in Cuba stopped working 54 years ago.
He lived off the story, of campaigns and bursts of gunfire, which contained more optical illusion than fact. The nationalization and absurd central planning of the production of matches, croquettes, and toothbrushes, killed creativity. Continue reading
Iván García, 7 July 2105 — In the Cuba of the Castros one thing is certain: the role of the people is to applaud, accept, and await the executive edicts. So long as the boring newspaper Granma does not confirm a news item, then reports about it are false.
The secretive handling of the press by the autocracy has far exceeded the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and its official news agency TASS. If in Moscow it took three days after Brezhnev’s death to announce it to the people, in Cuba some news can take a month to be acknowledged.
In other cases, the people never find out. Cubans know little or nothing about the transfer of weapons to North Korea, or that Antonio Castro, Fidel’s son and playboy of the olive-green bourgeoisie, won a golf tournament in Varadero. As far as the state media is concerned, Rihanna, Beyonce, and Paris Hilton did not visit the island. Continue reading
Ivan Garcia, 30 July 2015 — Browsing the internet outdoors in 90 degree heat could be classified as an extreme sport. If you stroll through downtown 23rd Street in the Havana district known as La Rampa, you will observe about a hundred adolescents and adults clustered under a covered walkway, in a stairway or on a low wall updating their Facebook pages or reading a notice in a Florida newspaper.
The introduction of the internet in Cuba was accompanied with absurd prices. The state telecommunications monopoly, ETECSA, is like a dinosaur trying to cross a suspension bridge while swing dancing.
To speak of its incompetence, bureaucracy and poor service is to be redundant. I advise those who are angry, high-strung or violent to avoid doing business with one of the company’s offices.
After two hours waiting in line, putting up with the rudeness of its employees and paying a king’s ransom for internet service, you begin to see sense how one could become a serial killer. Continue reading
Iván García, 28 July 2015 — Juliana, a seventy-three-year-old housewife, devotes much of her time to tasks related to feeding her family. “I spend eight hours cleaning rice, picking through beans, which are very dirty, buying bread, scouring produce markets, butcher shops and corner stores to see what is available and making lunch and dinner,” she explains while preparing black bean soup.
Julia and those like her do not fit the national pattern: They still have breakfast, lunch and dinner at home. “My daughters make good salaries and I get dollars from relatives in the United States, but it evaporates in trying to eat as best we can.”
In Cuba people live to eat. Food costs eat up 90% of the average salary. “And it’s not enough,” notes Renier, a laborer. “The only reason I don’t spend my entire salary on food is because I have to pay the light, water and gas bills.” Continue reading