Cuba: Risk of Health Crisis Due to Lack of Potable Water / Iván García

Trinidad residents carrying their water in buckets from the tanker truck. Source: Giselle Morales’ blog.

Ivan Garcia, 21 April 2017 — There is a slightly damp and cold breeze when Antonio, after drinking a rather bitter sip of coffee, with his wooden cart with rusty steel wheels, moves to a water spout in Manglar Street, very close to an old Sports field in the overpopulated neighborhood of La Victoria, in the heart of Havana.

A couple of cylindrical metallic tanks that can carry 55 gallons of water each are attached to the truck. At seven o’clock in the morning, when the city listens as a symphonized tune, a trail of alarm clocks, and Havanans get ready to go to work or school, Antonio unloads dozens of buckets to several customers in the neighborhood of San Leopoldo. continue reading

“Two years ago, for filling a 55-gallon tank, I charged 50 Cuban pesos (equivalent to two dollars) but now, because of the drought which is causing some scarcity, the price has risen to 60 pesos for each tank,” Antonio explains, while lunching on a serving of congrí rice, pork steak and cole slaw and cucumber in a private restaurant.

After five o’clock in the afternoon he goes back to the capital’s neighborhood to sell the water. In one day he can earn 500 pesos, about 20 dollars. “In addition to earning money, I keep in shape,” he says, and shows his trained biceps after almost twenty years carrying buckets of water.

In Havana there are more than 170,000 units that do not receive drinking water in their homes. Some of them due to breaks in the pipes and others because with aluminum sheets and pieces of cardboard and veneers they have raised frightening shacks without bathrooms and lacking the most basic conditions for human life.

According to an official of the state-run Aguas de La Habana, “these people are supposed to receive water in (state) tanker trucks. But because of the lack of gasoline, the drought that affects the country or simply corruption, the ‘pipers’ sell water to those who can pay, and thousands of families do not receive water in a timely manner.”

In Cuba, plagued with a dysfunctional government  and low productivity that generates scarcity, anything can become a business. Why not water.

From aguateros, like Antonio, who travel through the cracked streets of the old part of Havana selling water, to the tanker trucks of the state companies that also profit from the precious liquid.

“A full tank at this time costs between 25 and 30 pesos Cuban convertible pesos (about 25-30 dollars US). And demand outstrips supply. The buyers are business owners who have restaurants or rent out lodging, those who have swimming pools in their homes and in buildings where there is water shortage and people have a source of hard currency,” says the driver of a tanker truck.

The problem of the water supply in the capital is longstanding. For lack of a coherent hydraulic policy, the regime has been overwhelmed by something that is as essential as water.

With a population that exceeds two and a half million inhabitants, Havana continues to have as its main source of supply the old Albear aqueduct, a masterpiece of industrial engineering that began to be built in 1858 and was inaugurated in 1893, for a city of 600,000 people.

When Fidel Castro took power in January 1959, and after the October 1963 passage of Hurricane Flora, which left more than a thousand dead in the eastern part of the island, hundreds of dams and reservoirs of water were built that multiplied the country’s water storage capacity by a factor of five.

In 1987 the construction of the El Gato aqueduct began in the southeastern part of Havana. But because of lack of maintenance of the aqueduct and sewer networks, more than half of the water that was distributed was lost by leaks and ruptures of the pipes.

In the midst of the current drought, which plagues 81% of the country and is considered the worst that Cuba has suffered in the last hundred years, authorities that manage water resources have tightened measures to prevent water being wasted.

Manuel Manso, Aguas de La Habana’s ombudsman, explained that an inspector squad of 108 workers is trying to interact more directly with consumers, whether business or residential. One of the provisions is the application of fines, with 870 already having been imposed on private companies, in amounts of up to one thousand Cuban pesos (about 42 dollars).

Although the regime has invested nearly 9 million dollars in the rehabilitation of 550 miles of water networks in the capital, the effort appears to be inadequate.

“The company repairs a section, but then the water pressure damages another section that has not yet been repaired. Also, the quality of the repairs is not always good. And the technological obsolescence and timespans between maintenance complicate things. It’s like ‘plowing the sea,’ (a complete waste of effort),” says an engineer.

A health and epidemiology specialist is worried that “the water deficit in the residential sector could have an impact on the emergence of new outbreaks of Aedes Aegypti mosquitoes, carriers of dengue fever, chikungunya and other deadly diseases. Plus there is the proliferation of rats and cockroaches. Water scarcity, poor cleanliness in streets and public spaces, and the irresponsibility of citizens who dump garbage on any street corner have made Havana one of the dirtiest cities in Latin America.”

If the drought persists, along with poor hygiene in the city and problems with water supply, which cause families to store water in inappropriate containers without adequate protection, the arrival of summer could bring the breeding ground for a huge epidemic of mosquito-borne diseases.

“Every year we run the same danger, for not carrying out the necessary preventative work and the lack of hygiene in the city,” said one official. And walking on the edge of a cliff always carries risks.

The worst has not yet come. But the conditions are given.

Note: Although this article is limited to Havana, the water shortage due to drought has long been affecting all provinces.

For Ordinary Cubans, Democracy Isn’t a Priority / Iván García

Eliécer Ávila. Taken from Gaceta de La Habana.

Iván García, 19 April 2017 — When evening falls, Yainier and a group of friends who live in El Canal, a neighborhood in the Cerro municipality, 20 minutes by car from the center of Havana, grab a table by the door of an old bodega, and between swigs of rum and Reggaeton, they play dominoes well into the dawn.

They are six unemployed youths who live by whatever “falls off the back of a truck.” They also sell clothing imported from Russia or Panama, joints of Creole marijuana and toothpaste robbed the night before from a local factory. continue reading

They note down the domino scores they accumulate in a school notebook. The duo that gets to 100 points earns 20 pesos, the equivalent of one dollar, and if they really kick ass, they can earn double that amount.

The winners buy more rum, and between laughter and chatting, they kill time in a country where the hours seem to have 120 minutes. No one has a plan for the future.

In the seven or eight hours they pass playing, they usually talk about women, football or black-market businesses. Politics is not a subject of conversation.

The dissident, Eliécer Ávila, lives a few blocks away from where they’re playing dominoes. He’s an engineer and the leader of Somos Más (We Are More), an organization that supports democracy, free elections and free speech.

Probably Ávila is the most well-known dissident among Cubans who drink their morning coffee without milk. His debate in 2008 with Ricardo Alarcón, then the president of the one-note national parliament, was a success on the Island. The concerns of the young computer engineer and Alarcón’s incoherent answers circulated clandestinely on flash drives.

Eliécer, together with Antonio Rodiles, Manuel Cuesta Morúa and Julio Aleaga Pesant, figure among the most well-prepared dissidents in Cuba. Born in 1985 in Puerto Padre, Las Tunas, Ávila has leadership qualities and good speaking skills.

His project goes over the heads of people in the neighborhood, like the six domino players, who are indifferent to the reality of their country. How to achieve anything is a problem to solve for a repressed local opposition, which up to now has no power to convoke a meeting. Without going farther, in the slum area of Canal, where most inhabitants are black and deathly poor, almost no one is interested in demanding inalienable rights in any modern society.

One of those neighbors is Raisán, a mulatto with discolored skin, who religiously pays his dues to the Cuban Workers Center, the only labor organization that’s authorized on the Island. However, he recognizes that the Center, which supposedly ensures his salary and labor demands, doesn’t even attempt to manage them.

“Brother, this has to change. You can’t live on a salary of 400 Cuban pesos — around 17 dollars — while it costs 10 times that to eat or dress yourself,” says Raisán, after making a list of the daily hardships that the government never solves.

There’s a dichotomy in Cuba. Ask any Cuban his assessment of the performance of the State organizations and you can publish several tomes of complaints. People are tired of political rhetoric. The citizens want better services, salaries and living conditions. But they don’t have the legal tools to carry out their propositions.

Creating a movement or party that looks out for their interests, changing the political dynamic and demanding the democratization of society, continue to be taboo subjects. Although the dissidence requests these rights, it still hasn’t managed to gain the confidence of the beleagured citizens, for whom the priority is to find food and money sufficient to allow them to repair their houses, among other needs.

State Security, the political police, short-circuits any initiative that tries to insert the opposition inside the population. And certainly it’s the fear, typical of a tyrannical regime that has more severe laws for dissenting than for certain common crimes. Fear is a powerful wall of containment that repels nonconformists.

Cuban society continues being excessively simulated. It always was. During the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, after the assault on the Presidential Palace by the Revolutionary Directorate, March 13, 1957, the authorities called for an act of reconciliation with the dictator, and in spite of the rain, 250,000 residents of Havana responded in a spontaneous manner.

The same thing happened in 1959, after Fidel Castro took power. In silence, without protesting, Cubans saw how Castro knocked out democracy, dismantled the legal judicial machinery, buried the free press, eliminated private businesses and governed the country like a vulgar autocrat.

The answer to discontent always was to emigrate. A considerable segment of the citizenry didn’t support – nor do they support – those who bet on peacefully reclaiming their rights, inserting themselves into politics and denouncing the frequent attacks on human rights.

People prefer to look away or continue coming to the game, seated in the stands.

To get Cubans to understand that the best solution to their complaints is democracy, free elections and a coherent and independent judicial framework, which supports small and medium-sized businesses, until now has been a subject that stopped with the internal opposition. Which has tried, but without success.

Translated by Regina Anavy

Is Raul Castro in Hibernation Mode? / Iván García

Raúl Castro and Miguel Díaz-Canel. From ABC Color, newspaper in Paraguay.

Ivan Garcia, 11 April 2017 — Right now the most closely guarded secret in Cuba is the protocols for succession of the nation’s president, army general Raul Castro, after his retirement in February 2018.

I will tell you what is rumored among some officials close to the tight-lipped team of advisers and influential relatives in the Council of State.

A well-informed source claims, “The man is desperate to retire. He wants to spend more time with his children and grandchildren and travel around the world. He’s really going to retire. And it seems to me that he will probably pass his job on to the first party secretary. He has always preferred to be in the background.” continue reading

A technocrat with connections to powerful elites states, “The succession is not happening at the best time but Raul is serious when he says he is leaving. I have it on good authority that Miguel Diaz-Canel and his wife Lis Cuesta, around whom the media has been creating a presidential image in recent months, are studying English in depth and preparing to lead the country.”

A former personal security officials says, “Resources have been put at Diaz-Canel’s disposal, the kind of communication technology and logistical support that a president would have.”

Meanwhile, as the official media has been inundating us with reports of  economic successes and the alleged loyalty of the population to Raul Castro and his deceased brother, the countdown to the succession continues.

There is only a little more than ten months until D-Day. At midnight on February 24 the republic will presumably be governed by a civilian president without the last name Castro.

One of the sources consulted for this article believes that “after his own retirement, Raul will force the retirement of several longtime revolutionary officials such as Jose Ramon Machado Ventura and Ramiro Valdes.* His son Alejandro, who is a colonel in the Ministry of the Interior, will retain a certain degree of power while his daughter Mariela will continue promoting an image of tolerance towards homosexuality but will no longer hold any really significant positions.

“The power behind the throne will be the military. Everything has been arranged. There will be major economic changes. If the purchasing power of the population does not increase, consumer spending will be encouraged while the monetary and intellectual capital of the exile community will be tapped.

“If not, Cuba will never get out of the swamp. Political exhaustion and systemic failures have created conditions conducive to the emergence of an acute social crisis whose outcome no one can predict. That is why there will be changes.”

In Cuba, where the state press’s greatest strengths are saying nothing and masking daily reality, rumors within the halls of power carry more credibility than the official news.

Raul Castro is a perpetual schemer. Let the analyst or journalist who foresaw the secret negotiations with the United States and the reestablishment of diplomatic relations on December 17, 2014 raise his hand.

Prognosticating in such a secretive country can be disastrous but there have been some signals. During the the monotone National Assembly’s 2015 legislative session a gradual rollback of Raul’s reforms began. And Marino Murillo, the czar of these reforms, disappeared from official photos.

In response to the Venezuelan crisis, which led to cuts of 40% in fuel imports, the economic initiatives promoted by Raul Castro came to an abrupt halt.

Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba in March 2016 was the final straw. The regime’s most conservative factions began changing the rules of the game.

While lacking the charisma or stature of his brother, Castro II has proved to be more effective at putting together negotiating teams and has had greater successes in foreign policy. They include reestablishing diplomatic relations with the United States without having to make many concessions in return, acting as mediator in the meeting in Havana between the Orthodox and Catholic churches, facilitating the peace agreement in Colombia and securing the cancellation of a considerable portion of the nation’s financial debt.

His agricultural reforms have failed. People are still waiting for that glass of milk he promised them in a speech given in Camaguey on July 26, 2007. On that day Raul Castro said, “We have to erase from our minds this limit of seven years (the age at which Cuban children are no longer entitled to receive a certain ration of milk). We are taking it from seven to fifty. We have to produce enough so that everyone who wants it can have a glass of milk.”

The Foreign Investment Law has not been able to attract the roughly 2.5 billion dollars expected annually. The sugar harvest and food production have not gotten off the ground, requiring the regime to import more than two billion dollars worth of food every year.

Except for tourism, the profitable foreign medical assistance program and other international missions, and remittances from overseas, all other exports and economic initiatives have decreased or not shown sufficient growth.

Vital industrial sectors are not profitable and its equipment is obsolete. Problems in housing, transportation and public service shortages are overwhelming. The price of home internet service is outrageous. Official silence has surrounded recent restrictions on the sale of gasoline** while public speculation about a return to the “Special Period” has not been discussed by the executive branch.

Raul Castro barely appears in the public anymore. Aside from attending Fidel’s funeral in November 2016, presiding over parliament last December and sporadic appearances at the Summits of the Caribbean and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, his presence is almost imperceptible.

He is governing in hibernation mode, on automatic pilot. There is no word on currency reform. The vaunted Economic Guidelines, only 21% of which have been carried out, seem to be dead in the water.

According to a former journalist who now lives in Miami and who dealt closely with Raul in the late 1980s, his seemingly erratic behavior could be interpreted in several ways.

“Raul is not doctrinaire like his brother. Nor does he leave tasks half done like Fidel used to do. I supposed he has his hands full preparing Diaz-Canal so he can finish the job and implement good, effective reforms. I think Diaz-Canal will play an important role in Cub’s future. Reporters should start lining up their canons now,” says the former journalist.

The sense on the street is that the island is going to hell. The outlook does not look good. The future is a question mark. The pathways to emigration are closing. And the average person’s salary remains a bad joke.

The optimists, who are in the minority, are praying the general has an emergency plan in his desk drawer. The pessimists, who are in the majority, believe that life in Cuba will go on as it has, whether under Raul, Diaz-Canal or any other members of the Communist praetorian guard.

 *Translator’s note: Vice-president of the Council of State and governmental vice-president respectively.

** Though no public announcement has been made, as of April 1 sales of so-called “special gasoline” have been restricted to tourists with rental cars. 

This Is How Cuba Threatens, Intimidates, Controls and Punishes Its Own Citizens

Text reads: OFFICIAL CITATION

To citizen Ivan Garcia Quintero, resident of 12 Carmen Street, Apt 3, between San Lazaro and Calzada 10 de Octubre. Your presence is required at the 10 de October PNR (People’s Revolutionary Police) [station] on 2 April 2017 at 10:00 PM with the objective of an Interview.

You are warned that if you don’t appear we will use all the legal resources [obscured by stamp] … you will be fined up to 50 pesos or you will be criminally processed for the crime of disobedience to the authorities.

Note that the name signing the citation is a first name only: 1st Lt. ‘Alejandro’

Exercising Independent Journalism In Cuba Is A State Crime / Iván García

Sol García Basulto and Henry Constantín Ferreiro, independent journalists from Camagüey, accused of “usurpation of legal capacity.” Taken from Martí Noticias.

Iván García, 30 March 2017 — Fear has the habit of first knocking on your door. On any night, in a work center or a house, an official of State Security can give a citizen an official citation with an intimidating look.

It could be your sister, a close relative, childhood friends or a neighbor. The strategy is always the same. The assassination of the dissident journalist’s reputation by combining half-truths with treacherous lies.

They play all their cards. From one’s commitment to the Revolution to blackmail and social isolation. continue reading

Since I began a relationship with my wife, a telecommunications engineer, her professional career has been stalled. They control her email and the contents of her work through a magnifying glass. The same thing happens with friends who collaborate on my journalistic notes. It’s an insolent and arbitrary harassment.

The political policy officials in Cuba know they have an all-reaching power. They perform, Olympically, the violation of their own laws of autocracy.

An official of the National Revolutionary Police told me about the problems the State Security agents cause among their staff instructors. “They consider themselves to be above good and evil. They come into the unit and mobilize personnel and resources to detain or repress someone in the opposition. Or they take over an office without even asking permission. They’re a bunch of thugs.”

If you want to know the methods they use to create tensions among families and friends and to cause marital problems, I recommend that you see the documentary on political prisoners in Cuba, Avatares de la familia, made by Palenque Visión and recently premiered in Miami.

When someone gets involved in peaceful dissidence or exercises independent journalism, the family pays the price. If it’s not enough to create concern when a mother, father, spouse or son isn’t going to sleep at home one night; the treacherous State Security tries to dynamite intimate relations with accusations of marital infidelity.

The Regime surely washes its hand like Pontius Pilate when it declares, in international forums, that the Island doesn’t assassinate the opposition or independent journalists. But the fabrication of files with false proof is also a punishable crime.

The beatings of dissident women on public streets or in front of their children have increased. The occupation of work teams and the harassment of independent journalists have become a habitual practice of the political police.

Creed, religion or ideology doesn’t matter. It’s the same repression for neo-communist bloggers like Harold Cárdenas (El Toque Cuba), foreign correspondents like Fernando Rasvberg (Cartas Desde Cuba) or pure reporters like Elaine Díaz, who founded a digital newspaper (Periodismo de Barrio), which covers the country’s vulnerable communities.

For Raúl Castro’s government, disagreeing is a symptom of insubordination and the first step toward dissidence. In the midst of the 21st century, the olive-green State  affirms its right to give permission about what should be written or expressed. Anyone who doesn’t fulfill this precept is a criminal outside the law. Of course, for the openly anti-Castro journalists, the repression is more ferocious.

In the spring of 2003, 14 years ago, Fidel Castro ordered the incarceration of 75 peaceful opponents, 27 of which were independent journalists, among them the poet Raúl Rivero, whose “weapon” was a stack of ballpoint pens, an Olivetti Lettera typewriter and a collection of literature from universal writers.

Some colleagues who write without State permission and with different doctrines believe that the subject of the dissidence in Cuba — although it is packed with problems, divided but real — is hidden by the ideological police, and that those who support the status quo, the cultural policies and ideological thought on the Island, are rewarded.

Recent facts show that the mantle of intolerance, which at times resembles fascist behavior, has no borders. They insult Rasvberg with crude swearwords and detained Elaine and several of her colleagues from Periodismo de Barro when they tried to report on the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew in Baracoa, just as they systematically harass the independent journalist from Camagagüey, Henry Constantín Ferreiro, who has been the regional Vice President of the Sociedad Interamericana de Prensa for some months.

I know Henry personally. He’s a quiet guy, unaffected and creative, and right now the authorities are trying to accuse him of “usurpation of legal capacity,” the same as his colleague, Sol García Basulto. His “crime” is to exercise independent journalism and direct a magazine without State sponsorship.

We Cuban journalists should show solidarity with each other when the State tries to roll over us and shut us up. It doesn’t matter what each of us thinks. We all have the right to freely express our opinions.

To paraphrase Martin Luther King: You don’t have to love me, I only ask that you don’t lynch me.

 

Translated by Regina Anavy

Volunteer Blood Donors Ignore The Cuban Regime’s Business Dealings / Iván García

Mobile blood bank in Santiago de Cuba, Take from Changenewstoday.

Iván García, 6 March 2017 — A sloppy piece of cardboard painted with a crayon announces the sale of a discolored house in the neighborhood of La Vibora, 30 minutes by car south of Havana.

If Amanda, the owner, who is raving poor, manages to sell the house for the equivalent of 40,000 dollars, she intends to buy two small apartments, one for her daughter and the other for her son.

The house urgently needs substantial repairs. But Amanda’s family doesn’t have the money needed to undertake the work. Frank, 36, her son, is the custodian of a secondary school and earns a monthly salary of 365 Cuban pesos, around 17 dollars, and to help support the family, he’s a blood donor. continue reading

The Cuban regime doesn’t pay for these donations. Frank, who gives blood up to two times a month, should receive some 10 pounds of meat, a half-kilo of fish and three pounds of chicken.

“There are always delays. It’s a pain. In every municipality there’s a warehouse assigned to distribute this food to the blood donors. But it never happens. And what is worse, the government doesn’t reinstate you. For example, you never receive fish. Several of us donors sent a letter to the Ministry of Public Health complaining about the lack of supplies, but we’ve never received an answer,” complains Frank.

The material insecurity in Cuba is brutal. A growing number of families have furniture in their homes that is half a century old, or more. They lack modern appliances and must make their clothing and shoes last forever.

But the biggest problem is food, which devours between 80 and 90 percent of the average salary, which, according to official data, is the equivalent of 26 dollars a month.

Odalys, a nurse in a blood bank, says that “most volunteer donors give blood in order to take some food home. There are also people who occasionally give blood in order to receive a little snack of ham and cheese and a soft drink.”

The CDRs (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution) are paramilitary organizations, created as embryos of support for special services, to collect commodities. They also conduct night patrols to expose dissidents and those suspected of “illicit enrichment,” an aberrant judicial heading applied by the Castro government to any person who improves his quality of life.

Also, the CDRs have campaigns for blood donations. A resident of Lawton, the president of a CDR, affirms that “every time there are fewer people who want to donate blood. The CDRs have become a mess. They’re only busy snitching on the dissidents. They haven’t done night duty for some time on my block, much less organized recreational activities.”

Danaisis, who’s been a doctor for three years, recognizes that “even in the large hospitals in Havana, where there are dozens of surgical interventions every day, they don’t have sufficient plasma in their blood banks. When a patient has to have an operation, family members must donate blood. Or buy it from people at 20 dollars a donation.”

Like Frank and the rest of blood donors in the 10 de Octubre municipality, the nurse, Odalys, and the doctor, Danaisis, don’t know that the State exports, annually, hundreds of millions of dollars worth of human blood derivatives.

According to María Welau, the executive director of the Cuba Archive project, in an article published June 4, 2016, in Diario de Cuba, “For decades, the Cuban State has coordinated a multimillion dollar business, based on the commerce of blood extracted from its citizens, who ignore this trafficking and don’t receive any remuneration for their donations. Already in the middle of the 1960s, reports indicate that Cuba sold blood to Vietnam and Canada. In 1995, Cuba exported blood worth 30.1 million US dollars, and this commerce represented its fifth export product, surpassed only by sugar, nickel, shellfish and cigars.”

Werlau provides figures. “These exports don’t appear in the official statistics of the Cuban Government, published by the National Office of Statistics and Information (ONEI), but data from the world commerce indicate that in the 20 years between 1995 and 2014, Cuba exported 622.5 million dollars worth of human blood derivatives — which gives an average of 31 million dollars a year — under the category of Uniform Classification for International Commerce (SITC 3002), for human blood components (plasma, etc.) and medical products derived from plasma (PDMP is the acronym in English).

Cuba: Exports of human or animal blood prepared for therapeutic uses (in dollars)

In this article, the Cuba Archive Director denounces the fact that “the largest amount of these exports has been allocated to countries whose authoritarian governments are political allies of Cuba, probably to state entities that apply less strict criteria and have the same ethical standards (Iran, Russia, Vietnam, Algeria until 2003; then to Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina and Ecuador).

“According to Cuban Government reports, 93 percent of all units of human blood collected are broken into their components, which permits a much more lucrative business than if only plasma is sold, and facilitates the production of derivatives of high value, like interferon, human albumin, immunoglobulins, clotting factors, toxins, vaccinations and other pharmaceutical products. This export commerce gives Cuba a considerable advantage over its competitors, because it saves the usual cost represented by payments to the doors, whose blood is the raw material of the business.”

Exporting plasma, whether animal or human, isn’t a crime. What’s despicable is the lack of transparency of Raúl Castro’s regime. Or that Cubans like Frank have to give blood in exchange for a handful of meat and a few pounds of chicken. Food that the State doesn’t deliver most of the time.

Translated by Regina Anavy

The Cuban Regime Survives by Fear / Iván García

Black berets with dogs patrolling the center of Havana. Taken from the Red Cubana de Comunicadores Comunitarios.

Iván García, 21 March 2017 — In the slum of Lawton, south of Havana, the need for housing has converted an old collective residence with narrow passageways into a bunkhouse. With dividers made from cardboard or bricks recovered from demolished buildings, “apartments” have appeared where a dozen families reside, living on the razor’s edge.

Among the blasting Reggaeton music and illegal businesses, cane alcohol, stolen the night before from a state distillery, is sold and later used in the preparation of home-made rum; or clothing with pirated labels, bought in bulk from stalls in Colón, a stone’s throw from the Panama Canal. A while back, when cattle were slaughtered in the Lawton or Virgen del Camino slaughterhouses, you could get beef at the wholesale price.

These overpopulated townships in the capital are cradles of prostitution, drugs and illegal gambling. Lawton, like no other neighborhood in Havana, is the “model” for marginalization and crime. People live from robbing state institutions, selling junk or whatever falls from a truck. continue reading

But don’t talk to them about political reforms, ask them to endorse a dissident party or protest about the brutal beatings that the political police give a few blocks away to the Ladies in White, who every Sunday speak about political prisoners and democracy in Cuba.

Let’s call him Miguel, a guy who earns money selling marijuana, psychotropic substances or cambolo, a lethal mix of cocaine with a small dose of bicarbonate. He’s been in prison almost a third of his life. He had plans to emigrate to the United States but interrupted them after Obama’s repeal of the “wet foot-dry foot” policy.

Miguel has few topics of conversation. Women, sports, under-the-table businesses. His life is a fixed portrait: alcohol, sex and “flying,” with reddened eyes from smoking marijuana.

When you ask his opinion about the dissident movement and the continued repression against the Ladies in White, he coughs slightly, scratches his chin, and says: “Man, get off that channel. Those women are crazy. This government of sons of bitches that we have, you aren’t going to bring it down with marches or speeches. If they don’t grab a gun, the security forces will always kick them down. They’re brave, but it’s not going to change this shitty country.”

Most of the neighbors in the converted bunkhouse think the same way. They’re capable of jumping the fence of a State factory to rob two gallons of alcohol, but don’t talk to them about politics, human rights or freedom of expression.

Mi amor, who wants to get into trouble? The police have gone nuts with the businesses and prostitution. But when you go down the path of human rights, you’re in trouble for life,” comments Denia, a matron.

She prefers to speak about her business. From a black bag she brings out her Huawei telephone and shows several photos of half-nude girls while chanting out the price. “Look how much money. Over there, whoever wants can beat them up,” says Denia, referring to the Ladies in White.

Generally, with a few exceptions, the citizens of the Republic of Cuba have become immune or prefer to opt for amnesia when the subjects of dissidence, freedom and democracy are brought up.

“There are several reasons. Pathological fear, which certainly infuses authoritarian societies like the Cuban one. You must add to that the fact that the Government media has known very well how to sell the story of an opposition that is minimal, divided and corrupt, interested only in American dollars,” affirms Carlos, a sociologist.

Also, the dissidence is operating on an uneven playing field. It doesn’t have hours of radio or television coverage to spread its political programs. The repression has obligated hundreds of political opponents to leave the country. And State Security has infiltrated moles in almost all the dissident groups.

“The special services efficiently short-circuit the relation of the neighbors of the barrio and the people who support the dissidence. How do you overcome that abyss? By expanding bridges to the interior of the Island. I believe the opposition is more focused on political crusades toward the exterior. The other is to amplify what the majority of Cubans want to hear: There isn’t food; to buy a change of clothing costs a three months’ salary; the terrible transport service; the water shortage….There is a long list of subjects the dissidents can exploit,” says Enrique.

I perceive that around 80 percent of the population has important common ground with the local opposition. The timid economic openings and repeals of absurd regulations were always claimed by the dissidence, from greater autonomy for private work, foreign travel or being tourists in their own country.

According to some dissidents, many neighbors approach them to say hello and delve into the motives for their detentions after a brutal verbal lynching or a beating. But there aren’t enough.

Rolando Rodríguez Lobaina, the leader of the Alianza Democrática Oriental (Eastern Democratic Alliance) and director of Palenque Visión (Palenque Vision), felt frustrated when street protests demanding rights for everybody were taking place, and people were only watching from the curb of a sidewalk.

“One night I was in the hospital’s emergency room, since my son had a high fever, and I initiated a protest because of the poor medical attention. Several patients were in the same situation. But no one raised their voice when the patrols arrived and the political police detained me by force. That night I realized that I had to change my method to reach ordinary Cubans. Perhaps the independent press is a more effective way,” Lobaina told me several months ago in Guantánamo.

Although independent journalists reflect that other Cuba that the autocracy pretends to ignore, their notes, reports or complaints have a limited reach because of the lack of Internet service and the precariousness of their daily lives.

For the majority of citizens, democracy, human rights and freedom of expression are not synonymous with a plate of food, but with repression. How to awaken a Cuban from indifference is a good question for a debate.

Translated by Regina Anavy

“We’ve Been Investigating Ivan Garcia for Five Years” / Iván García

Ivan Garcia (l.) and Raul Rivero (r.) in a Miami cafeteria on September 17, 2016

Iván García Quintero, Havana, 19 March 2017 — When the summons arrived for an interview with a police official, the girl’s puzzled family thought it was a mistake.

Let’s call them Kenia, Pedro, and Camila. They are neighbors of mine and prefer to remain anonymous.

Kenia was summoned to a police station on Finlay street, in the Sevillano District, near the State Security barracks known as Villa Marista.

“When I arrived, the man started harassing and threatening me, saying that I hung around with foreigners. Then he wanted to get information about Ivan García, ’a known counterrevolutionary that we’ve been investigating for five years.’ He wanted to know details about his private life, about where he got the money to repair his house. He also asked my opinion about his work as an independent journalist. At one point he described him as a ’terrorist’ and said that both he and his mother were ’conspirators.’ continue reading

“I was in a state of shock. I told him that he is a friend of mine and my family, and that if what he said is true, why didn’t he arrest him. The officer who interviewed me— young, hostile, and with a military haircut — replied that for now they had no evidence, but they were contacting people like me to collaborate with them and give them more information. I refused to be an informant,” says Kenya.

They were more direct with Pedro. “They accused me of giving confidential information to Ivan Garcia. I told them that I had been retired for four years. They threatened to open a file on me for collaborating on some of the news stories written by Ivan. At the end of the meeting, they warned me to be careful not to say anything to Ivan, because ’he might get off scot-free, but you, Pedro, old as you are, you could die in jail.’”

Without providing any evidence, they issued Camila a warning for harassing tourists and prostitution. “I didn’t sign it. But they told me that if I keep associating with Ivan I will be prosecuted for prostitution. I was accused of pimping and, together with Ivan, of controlling several prostitutes who, in return for money, offered information about their work. All that is a scandalous lie. Out of fear, I promised to delete Ivan’s phone from my contact list. ”

All three were warned that they would soon be summoned again. I told them that when they were, to let me know so I could go with them. If you want to know about me, cite me; it is despicable to intimidate innocent people.

In March 1991, four years before I began writing as an independent journalist at Cuba Press, I was detained for two weeks in a cell at Villa Marista, the headquarters of the State Security Department. They accused me of “enemy propaganda.” I was never tried, but beginning in 1991, for whatever reason, I was detained.

Then there was a period of less harassment until October 22, 2008, when at the intersection of Prado and Teniente Rey, a Colombian colleague handed me some books sent by Ernesto McCausland, a prestigious Colombian journalist, writer, and filmmaker (deceased in 2012). The Colombian and I were arrested by the police and placed in a patrol car. He was released immediately, but they took me to the station at Zanja and Lealtad and kept me in solitary confinement for 11 hours. I recounted this in State of Siege.

Two years later, August 2010, brought the first harassment by Military Counterintelligence. I was then writing for El Mundo.es/América, which published three denunciations, the first titled Citación oficial. Three years later, I would again be harassed by the secret police. On February 18, 2013, Diario Las Américas published, on its front page, “Las Américas Journalist harassed by the Cuban government.” Continuing evidence of this remains posted on the blogsite Desde La Habana.

State Security knows where to find me. They have my phone number and the address where I live. I wait for them.

 Translated by Tomás A.

Cuba: To Live As Third Class Citizens / Iván García

A Cuban market. Photo Credit: Libre Mercado

Iván García, 17 March 2017 — On a wooden shelf are displayed two bottles of liquid detergent, a dozen packs of Populares cigarettes, a packet of coffee, and, on a hastily-drawn poster, a quotation from the deceased Fidel Castro.

Past 10:30 am, the hot bodega [in this case a store where rationed items are sold] is like a steam oven. Luisa, the saleswoman, seated on a plastic chair, tries to start up a rusty residential fan. In the background can be heard the baritone voice of an announcer narrating a soap opera scene.

In the bodega’s storeroom, stacked in random heaps, are 10 or 12 bags of rice, a half-empty container of vegetable oil, and several bags of powdered milk that the State provides exclusively for children younger than 7 years of age and for individuals who possess medical documentation of having cancer or some other grave illness. continue reading

Sitting on the stoop at the store’s entrance, two dirty guys knock back mouthfuls of rum from a small jug while a stray dog, old and ragged, urinates on the door. The monotony of the surreal panorama is broken when the saleswoman hurls a piece of hose at the dog to frighten it away.

After a while, customers begin arriving, nylon bags dangling from their forearms and ration books in their hands.

To all who were born in Cuba, the regime sells 7 pounds of rice, 20 ounces of black beans, a pouch of coffee blended with peas, a half-pound of vegetable oil, and 1 pound of chicken per month–and on a daily basis one bread roll, almost always poorly made.

This subsidized market basket, if consumed in small portions at lunch or dinner, will probably last 10 or 12 days. After that, for the remainder of the month, people are on their own. Housewives and mothers who, after getting home from work, must turn on the stove should be given prizes for creativity.

To feed a family requires 90 percent of the household income. Those who make a low salary (which is the majority of the population) have no choice but to purchase average to low-quality merchandise offered by the State. Those who receive remittances from family or friends abroad in hard currency can purchase higher-quality products.

The ration book, which was implemented in March 1962, is the reason that thousands of Cubans have not died of hunger. Although what they eat remains a mystery.

Luisa the saleswoman says that “for four months now, the rice we get at the bodega is dreadful. Nobody can eat it. Not even the best cook could make it better. It sticks, forming a sludge, and it tastes like hell. And don’t even mention the beans. They’ve been taken from the state reserves, where they’ve been stored for ages. They have a terrible smell. And you could try cooking them for four or five hours and they still wouldn’t soften. This is rice and beans that pigs would not eat.”

But Diego and María, a couple of pensioners who between the two of them take in the equivalent of 25 dollars a month, cannot afford the luxury of discarding the subsidized rice.

“I mix it with the rice that’s sold at 4 Cuban pesos per pound; it’s pretty good, and this way we can eat it. If you live in Cuba you can’t be picky. You have to eat what they give you, or what you can find,” María emphasizes.

If you go around inside any state-run cafeteria, you will note that hygienic standards are nonexistent: stacks of cold-cut sandwiches, fritters or portions of fried fish on aluminum trays surrounded by a chorus of flies.

The elderly, those great losers in Raúl Castro’s timid economic reforms, tend to eat foods of low nutritional value and worse preparation, just to lessen their hunger.

There is a chain of state-run dining halls on the Island that serve lunch and dinner to more than a half-million people who are in extreme poverty.

One of these facilities can be found in the old bar Diana, located on the busy and dirty Calzada Diez de Octubre street. The rations cost 1 Cuban peso. According to a Social Security roster provided to the administrator, about 100 Havana residents–almost all low-income elderly people–are served there daily.

At two steel tables covered with cheap cloths, three women and four men, holding their old metal bowls, await the day’s rations. “The food isn’t worth mentioning. A bit of rice, often hard, watery beans, and a croquette or a boiled egg. Sometimes they give you a little piece of chicken,” says Eusebio, a retired railway engineer who lives by himself.

A dozen people interviewed complain more about their bad luck, about having no money and being dirt-poor, than about the bad cooking. “Yes, it’s bad, but at least in these dining rooms we can count on getting lunch and dinner,” notes Gladys, a single mother of four daughters who receives Social Security.

A staff member admits that “it’s very difficult to cook well without seasonings and condiments. Nor do we get vegetables and fruits. On top of that, the administrator and the cooks make off with the oil and the chicken when we get them.”

In Cuba, what is bad, unpleasant and incorrect goes beyond food preparation. You can find it in the dirty stands that hold vegetables and fruits, in the sale of unwrapped goods, or the adulteration of standards for making sausages and weighing them appropriately at the point of sale.

“It shows a lack of respect towards the population. Anything that you buy in Cuban pesos is of horrible quality. It’s the same for clothing, hardware items or household items. In general, what is sold to the people is shit. Look at these bags of watery yogurt,” Mildred points out while standing in line at a state store to buy whipped yogurt at 15 Cuban pesos per bag.

Even when purchases are made with convertible pesos*, it is hard in Cuba to buy items of assured quality.

But Cubans, who must eat, dress and enjoy their leisure time by paying for it with the national currency– the Cuban peso–must make do with devalued merchandise. They are third-class citizens in their own country.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

*Translator’s note: Cuba has two currencies: Cuban pesos, worth about 4 cents US, and Cuban Convertible pesos, each worth 25 Cuban pesos, or about one dollar US. It has been a longstanding, but as yet unfulfilled, promise of the government to move to a single currency.

Cuba: Renting Out Medical Specialists / Iván García

Cuban doctors who deserted in Venezuela have settled in Colombia, where they have undertaken numerous protests. Some of them managed to get to the United States. Taken by Martí News

Ivan Garcia, 4 March 2017 — Twenty years later, Nivaldo (names changed), 43, an orthopedist, still remembers the hot morning when his parents said goodbye to him in the old train station in a small village in the depths of Cuba.

The economy of his native village, with narrow streets of cracked asphalt and the small of cane juice, revolved around the sugar mill and the usual thing was that grandfathers, fathers and grandsons worked in the sugar industry.

It was a sugar mill town like many others. Squat brick houses half plastered, a handful of white wood houses, guarded by five or six grungy prefabricated buildings, built after Fidel Castro’s Revolution.

The present and future of the village was to drink alcohol distilled from cane, playing baseball on scrub ground and taming some lost mare around some stinking green creek. continue reading

But Nivaldo wasn’t a cane cutter nor a worker at the mill. He graduated as a doctor on a rainy night in 1997 and after completing his social service in a mountainous area of Santiago de Cuba, specialized in orthopedics.

When he stepped in Havana for the first time, like almost all the country people, he took a photo at the base of the Capitol, and used a finger to count the number of floors in the Habana Libre Hotel or the Fosca Building.

“My dream was to be a doctor. Have a family and live according to my professional status. I’m a specialist, I have a marvelous family, but in order to maintain it I do things I’m not proud of.”

“I have been on international missions in South Africa, Pakistan and Venezuela. Not out of conviction but simply to earn money and repair and furnish my house. In Cuba it’s hard to find a doctor who hasn’t violated the Hippocratic oath, and accepted gifts or money to maintain his family. In the countries where I have worked, I’ve seen patients under the table who have paid me. In Cuba I have groups of patients who’ve given me gifts, a box of beer that costs sixty Cuban convertible pesos, according to the seriousness of their suffering.”

On the Castro brother’s island a lot of things don’t work. You can wait an hour and a half to get from one part of town to another because the chaos that is public transport.

From the time you get up in the morning the problems accumulate. There’s no water in the tank. There’s no money to buy a pair of shoes for the kids. Or you have to eat whatever there is, not what you need or desire.

Let’s not even talk about other things, also important for human beings, like freedom of expression, the right to join a party other than the communist party, or to elect the president of the Republic.

But healthcare, universal coverage, was the pride of the autocrat Fidel Castro. It worked well as long as the former USSR was sending checks worth millions and connected a pipeline of petroleum coming from the Caucasus.

Later with the fall of Soviet Communism the deficit came. Ruined hospitals, nurses looking like police agents and missing medical specialists. The Raul Castro regime tried to keep the the flagship of the Revolution afloat, but it was taking on water everywhere.

The first ones who become fed up are the doctors. If not all of them, at least a broad segment. The causes vary, but the keys are the low salaries and the lack of recognition for their work.

Migdalia, a dermatologist points out that “for six years I earned 700 Cuban pesos — about 35 dollars — and the salary was barely enough for me to buy fruits and vegetables at the market. Now I get 1,600 Cuban pesos — almost 75 dollars — and it’s not enough either. So I accept patients who give me bread and ham, or a piece of clothing, or money in cash, and I give them personalized attention.”

Joel, an allergist, wonders why, if what the international media says is true and the government gets between 7 and 8 billion dollars from the sale of medical services, “they don’t pay us salaries consistent with the inflation in the country. I was in Venezuela two years. The neighbors gave me food and gave me gifts of clothing and things. Rather than a doctor, I looked like a merchant buying stuff to sell when I came back. I got to Cuba, after three years on a mission, between business and the money I saved I had some four thousand dollars, not even enough to rebuild my house. Now I’m chasing a mission in Trinidad and Tobago or Qatar, but to get it you have to pay some official at the Ministry of Public Health (MINSAP) some 400 or 500 bucks for them to put you on the list. For these reasons, among others, many doctors decide to emigrate.”

If we credit the statistics, a little more than three thousand doctors have deserted in the last seven years. Venezuela is a destination that puts their lives at risk. The delirious criminality in the South American country has provoked, according to a statistic from 2010, the deaths of 67 Cuban health professionals.

The lack of high-quality specialists makes it difficult to care for patients in Cuba. Daniel has been looking for an ear specialist for six months to diagnose and treat a problem.

“They only treat you as am emergency in a hospital if you’re dying. Diseases and symptoms that require lab tests, exams with equipment such as cat scans or x-rays. can only be obtained quickly by paying with money or gifts. Preventive medicine on the island is in crisis,” Daniel affirms.

Twice a month, Marta pays 10 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC) to the dentist who sees her daughter. “It’s the only way to get high quality care. If you don’t pay, and try to work through the system, they don’t fix your mouth or they do it badly.”

Aida, who works for a bank, waited almost a year to get an appointment with an allergist. “Her appointment at the polyclinic was once a month. But she never went. With two little bites of ham, two soft drinks and 5 CUC I was able to get an allergist to see me. Then, if they see that you have resources, then they stretch out the attention to get more money out of you. Some doctors have become hucksters. It’s painful.”

When you go to appointments at hospitals, you see that the majority of patients are bringing gifts for the doctor. But it can be a gift in kind. Though many prefer cash.

Havana Taxi Drivers Up In Arms / Iván García

Almendrones, as vintage American cars in Cuba are called. Almost all of them travelling between 23rd and G streets in Havana’s Vedado district, as shown here, now operate as privately-owned taxis or boteros. From the blog Habana por Dentro.

Ivan Garcia, 27 February 2017 — After working twelve hours driving a vintage 1957 Chevrolet for a collective taxi company on the Cotorro-Central Park route, twenty-nine year old Osdiel sits down to have a beer at a dark bar in the south end of Havana, where he unleashes his frustration over new measures Cuban authorities have adopted.

Without a leader or a labor union looking out for their interests, a large faction of Havana taxi drivers is organizing to overturn what they consider to be arbitrary regulations imposed by the regime of Raúl Castro. continue reading

This report will be concise. Havana is a densely populated metropolitan area of more than two and a half million residents with a road network routinely in disrepair and a mass transit system in chaos. In the summer of 2016 the city began regulating prices for private taxi services.

In the Cuban capital there are about thirty designated taxi corridors. These are fixed routes costing between 10 and 20 pesos per ride based on travel distance. The current fleet of taxis, which is operated by licensed drivers as well as individuals who work clandestinely on the sidelines, is estimated at between 10,000 and 12,000 automobiles.

“Sometimes there are more because drivers from nearby provinces such as Artemisa, Mayabeque, Pinar del River and Matanzas come to Havana. That’s in addition to the hundreds of drivers working for state-owned companies who pick up passengers during and after normal working hours to earn extra money,” says Francisco, an official with ONAT (National Office of Tax Administration), an institution that regulates private sector work in Cuba.

Beginning in 2016, along with a rollback of the autocratic regime’s timid economic reforms, the government began meddling in prices that had been determined by supply and demand.

In January of last year the government began a policy of regulating prices for produce. In the last twelve months it has closed 60% of independent farmers’ markets.

The state does not sell fuel or spare parts at wholesale prices to private-sector taxi drivers in spite of the public benefit they provide.

Eliecer, who drives a Soviet-era Lada along the Vibora-Vedado route, explains, “In no paragraph of our contract does it say that the government can regulate prices. We set them based upon supply and demand.”

Before 1959 public transportation in Cuba was efficient but that all ended once Fidel Castro and his bearded men came to power. For almost six decades since then, it has been a pressing issue for the regime. Bus, taxi, rail, shipping and air transportation have been plagued with shortages that have impacted the time and ways it takes to transport millions of people from one place to another within a city or across the country.

Though Havana should ideally have have a fleet of 3,000 buses, there are only about 900 operating. Along the busiest routes such as the P6, P7, P11 and P14, buses should arrive every three minutes during peak hours but only come along once every ten or fifteen minutes. And there is no subway or suburban rail network serving the city.

Three decades ago, the state operated 4,000 taxis and charged modest prices. The fleet of state-run taxis now numbers less than 200 and often are used to provide services to hospitals and funeral homes. These taxis are also rented out, at market rates, to drivers who have finished their shifts.

There is a fleet of some 800 modern, air-conditioned cars which charge in convertible pesos and are used primarily by tourists, foreign visitors and affluent Cubans.

The regime has discreetly launched a small enterprise called Cubataxis, a network of taxis with fares priced in hard currency. Three years ago it began leasing them to drivers. “You get 500 CUCs (convertible pesos) as a loan and every day you have to hand over 55 CUCs to the government. The authorities give us twenty liters of fuel; we have to buy the rest. To meet the guidelines, we have to clock up to thirteen hours a day. We get to keep the car at home and we set the fares,” explains Dagoberto, who drives of a Chinese-made Geely.

For private-sector taxi drivers like Erasmo, this difference matters. “Why don’t they regulate Cubataxis’ prices? Oh, because the government makes money off this business. We fulfill a need in society. We transport hundreds of thousands of people a day. We are doing the work the government should be doing,” he complains.

For a long time drivers who work for state-run businesses have sold fuel at prices lower than those at gas stations. “On the black market a liter of gasoline costs between twelve and fifteen pesos. The government sells it for 28 pesos,” says a private sector taxi driver.

According to reports, the reduction of petroleum imports from Venezuela — deliveries fell from 100,000 barrels a day to 55,000 — is what led to the Cuban government to begin charging its business operations for fuel.

This led to a shortage on the black market, forcing most private-sector taxi drivers to raise prices. A trip that normally would have cost ten pesos was soon up to twenty.

When authorities in Havana ordered a cap on cab fares in July 2016, the response from a large number of taxi drivers was to break up the rides into smaller segments. For example, if a trip from La Palma to Brotherhood Park cost ten pesos, they would split it into two and increase their profit.

Such subterfuge along with the price hikes have irritated large numbers of customers who rely on shared taxis on a daily basis to get around.

“The government took advantage of a bad situation to adopt populist measures that favor passengers. But they didn’t take into account the fact that taxi drivers are the owners of their vehicles and can determine prices. Now that there is a lid on prices, God help you if you are trying to catch a taxi,” says Lisván.

For Osdiel, the owner of a 1957 Chevrolet, the problem is one of negotiation. “The government wants us to do what it wants us to do. But this is not the era of slavery. Most taxi drivers want to sit down and talk, then come to an agreement. My proposal would be for the authorities to sell us a certain amount of fuel at a subsidized price in exchange for them being able to set prices.”

Manuel, a slow talking kind of guy, believes, “The targets of this offensive are the owners of small fleets of cars, jeeps and trucks. They want to screw us over because we make a lot of money. And that’s a crime in this system. Sixty percent of private-sector taxi drivers in Havana don’t own their vehicles. They are salaried workers. I estimate that a hundred or two hundred people own at least four or five cars each and have ten to twelve employees working for them. I own six cars, five jeeps and three trucks. The purpose of these measures is to wipe us off the map.”

For the time being, more than four thousand drivers have decided not to go to work next Monday, February 27. “We will say that our cars are busted or we are sick. We will go on strike. Let’s see what they’ll do then,” says Osdiel defiantly.

The battle between private-sector taxi drivers and the government of Raúl Castro has become like a serialized novel. We will see what the next installment brings.

Undercover American Tourists in Cuba / Iván García

AFP photo taken from Vivelo Hoy

Ivan Garcia, 23 January 2017 — Miami Airport is almost a city. And the American Airlines’ departures area is a labyrinth, with dozens of corridors and passages. That’s why Noahn, an American living in Michigan, arrived five hours before his flight’s scheduled departure time to Varadero.

He was travelling with his wife, his eight-month-old son carried in an arm-sling, and a dog with long floppy ears. In his luggage, professional diving equipment and an electric skateboard. The couple speak in carefully enunciated Spanish, with a hint of a Colombian accent. “It’s because I worked for an American company in Bogotá,” explains Noahn. continue reading

To everyone who wants to listen to him, he describes his experiences as a tourist in Cuba. He knows the Coco and Santa Maria Keys, located to the north of Ciego de Avila and Villa Clara and Maria La Gorda, in the western province of Pinar del Rio.

“But I was enchanted by Varadero. It’s the third time in two years I’ve been there since the reestablishment of relations between Cuba and the United States. Neither Miami Beach nor Malibu can compare with Varadero, with its fine white sandy beach. The water is warm and there are hardly any waves. Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic, Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro and The Bahamas may have just as good or better natural conditions,” he adds, while his wife gives the child some milk in a bottle.

Despite the prohibitions on tourism in Cuba, Americans such as Noahn travelled to the island by way of a third country. “Before December 17, 2014, I travelled to Cuba via Mexico. After that date it’s been easier. There are twelve quite flexible categories, which they call the twelve lies. You declare whichever pretext, and travel in a group or individually. “In theory you can’t go as a tourist, but I bet that’s what half of the American travellers are doing.”

Out of more than 200 passengers on the flight heading to Varadero, only six were Cubans going back to their country permanently or to visit relatives on the island.

Judith, a biologist living in Georgia, is going to Cuba for the second time this year. Why? “Half for professional experience, half tourism.” I’m interested in gathering information on the varieties of Cuban vegetation. Once I finish my research, I’m going to stay a week in a hotel full-board in Camaguey or in Holguin.”

Asked if she felt any harassment or if any federal institution has opened a file on her for violating the country’s regulations, she replies: “Not at all. Seems to me the wisest thing to do would be to openly permit tourism in Cuba, because that’s what in reality people are doing.”

After the re-establishment of relations between two countries that were living in a cold war climate, many more Americans are travelling to the Greater Antilles. In January 11, 2016, Josefina Vidal, an official working in the Cuban Foreign Ministry, and responsible for relations with the United States, reported on Twitter that, in 2016, the island received a total of 614,433 visitors from United States (Americans and Cuban Americans), 34% more than in 2015.

Although on paper the Americans arriving are recorded as being part of a religious or journalistic or a people-to-people exchange, it isn’t difficult to spot well-built blonds or redheads downing quantities of mojitos in a bar in Old Havana or enjoying the warm autumn sun on a Cuban beach.

When at 8:30 in the evening, the American Airlines plane landed at the Juan Gualberto Gómez international airport in Varadero, after a quick check, half a dozen air-conditioned buses were waiting for the “undercover” tourists to take them to four and five star hotels along the Hicacos Peninsula coast.

“Yes, the Americans are tourists.” Many of them go to Havana, others pass the time in Varadero. They prefer to stay in hotels. About 400 or 500 come every week. And many more are expected at New Year’s,” said an official of the Gaviota chain, balancing on the stairway of a bus.

Private taxi drivers and those who lease vehicles from the state hang around the terminal. “There are gringos who come as individual tourists. I charge them the equivalent of $40 for the trip to Varadero, about 20 kilometers from the airport. Almost all give good tips. Unlike the Spaniards and Mexicans, who are complete tightwads,” says Joan, a private taxi driver.

The majority of Cubans are convinced that Americans are rich. And have more money than they know what to do with. They try to milk them as if they were cows.

At the currency exchange outside the airport, they exchange dollars for 86 centavos, less than the official rate of 87. “The rate goes down at weekends,” he says.

An employee in the terminal, says “Here everyone is doing business. “The lavatory cleaner charges, the café sells stuff on the side, and the customs people get things off the passengers.”

Tourism in Cuba is like a harvest. Everyone wants to squeeze the sugar cane. And you can extract plenty of juice from the sneaky tourists

Translated by GH

The Cuban Regime Has Redoubled Its Assault On The Private Sector / Iván García

Police raids against private vendors are common in Havana.

Ivan Garcia, 24 February 2017 — Marino Murillo, the presumptive tsar of economic reforms in Cuba, a prime minister with broad powers, passed up a seat in the first row next to the senior staff of a long-lived revolution governed by an exclusive club of elders who, as a group, have lived almost 500 years, to take a seat in the third row, far from the spotlight and the cameras.

In closed societies, where rumors are more truthful than the information offered by the State press, you have to learn to read between the lines. Lacking a government office that offers public information to its citizens, academics, journalists and political scientists, you must look with a magnifying glass at the most insignificant signs. continue reading

That morning in December 2015, when the autocrat Raúl Castro feigned indignation before the more than 600 deputies of the monotone national parliament about the abusive prices of agricultural products, was the beginning of the end for Marino Murillo.

Castro II requested that measures be applied. And not very consistently, alleging the law of supply and demand that governs the produce markets, Murillo mumbled that he would try to implement different regulations to try to curb the increase in prices.

Apparently this wasn’t sufficient. The previous super-minister fell into disgrace, and now not even his photo appears in the official media, although theoretically he continues at the front of the agenda, charged with implementing the economic guidelines, a kind of commandment that moves at a snail’s pace and with serious delays: In six years, only a little more than 20 percent of the guidelines have been implemented.

With the fading-out of fatso Murillo, the dynamic of timid economic reforms — together with openings in the obsessive defense of Fidel Castro, who transformed Cubans into third-class citizens — the game began to be directed by the most rancid and conservative of the military leadership.

It was essential to open to the world and repeal the feudal exit permit needed to travel outside the island, to permit Cubans to rent hotel rooms and to buy or sell houses, among other normal regulations in any country in the 21st century.

There is no doubt that this was a leap forward, with barriers, absurd prices and spite for people who make money. Yes, in Cuba they sell cars, but a Peugeot 508 is worth more than a Ferrari, and you must pay cash.

The Internet and cell phones are not exactly tools of science fiction, but the price for service is insane for a country where the average salary is 25 dollars a month.

The supposed reforms were always incomplete. They were left halfway. Cubans cannot invest in large businesses; professionals don’t have authorization to work for themselves, and the State claims the right to establish a ridiculous list of jobs that are or are not permitted.

Of the 201 authorized jobs, there are at least 10 or 15 enterprises where, with creativity and effort, you can make large sums of money, always taking into account the Cuban context, where anyone who earns 10,000 Cuban pesos a month (about $400) is considered “rich.” This is a country where for almost 60 years, the average citizen is sponsored by the State.

Of course the regulations, excessive taxes, harassment by State inspectors and a deadly clause in the Government’s economic bible, which prohibits persons or groups from accumulating large sums of capital, hinder prosperity and the boom in private work.

In a nation where the Government has been in charge of clothing, shoeing, rewarding or punishing its citizens, a margin of liberalism, as small as it is, was an oasis for a half million entrepreneurs who now live on the margins of the State.

The starting shot that would put the handbrake on the reforms began on December 17, 2014, when President Barack Obama and General Raúl Castro, of mutual accord, put an end to the incredible Cold War between Cuba and the United States.

Once out of the trenches, Obama began to launch packets of measures with the marked intention of favoring private workers. The Regime didn’t like that.

They wanted to do business with the gringos but with their own State enterprises, not to empower the private ones. Then, progressively, the Castro autocracy started to slow down the dynamic sector, probably the only one that was growing on the Island, that paid salaries from three to five times more than the State, and which gave employment to some 20 percent of the work force.

In autumn of 2015, a negative dynamic began. Presently only 30 percent of the supply-and-demand produce markets are functioning. The State harasses and penalizes the cart vendors who sell meat, fruit and vegetables, and they have declined by 50 percent. The State closed the largest produce market in Trigal, south of Havana, and the Taliban juggernaut expects to increase with regulations and taxes on all the buoyant businesses in gastronomy, transport and hotel services.

What’s this new “revolutionary offensive” about? I don’t think it has the reach of the confiscations of french fry stands and shoeshine stalls of 1968, or the counter-reforms for certain openings in the 1980s and ’90s.

But it’s undeniable that the Regime doesn’t want the train to derail. Presently there’s a small segment of Cubans, between 60,000 and 100,000 persons, who have amassed small fortunes thanks to their taste and talent for business.

We’re talking about 100,000 dollars going forward, an insignificant figure in any First World country, but extraordinary in a country impoverished by the poor management of the Castro brothers.

In addition to pleasure and social status, money engenders power. While Castroism functions in Cuba, private businesses will not be able to prosper. This is the reason for the brakes put on the private owners.

A word of advice to the olive green Regime: Be careful with excesses. In December 2010, an abusive fine on the owner of a food stand, Mohammed Buazisi, who out of contempt immolated himself, put a final end to the Tunisian dictatorship of Ben Ali and unchained the Arab Spring.

In its present offensive against the private taxi drivers, the Cuban authorities shouldn’t forget what happened in Tunisia a little more than six years ago. In societies of order and control, the devil is always in the details.

 

Translated by Regina Anavy

Do We Have to Wait for the Government to Sell the Peugeot 508s to Improve Public Transport? / Iván García

Havanans boarding a the bus. From OnCuba magazine

Ivan Garcia, 18 February 2017 — Seven in the morning at the bus stop at Acosta Avenue and Poey Street, in the dense La Vibora neighborhood in southern Havana. Almost a hundred people are waiting for the No. 174 bus to Vedado.

While waiting for the bus, some take the opportunity to have a coffee from the roving coffee-seller. Others breakfast on bread with croquette or an egg sandwich from a private cantina, continually looking at the bus stop, in case a ‘guagua’ (bus) shows up. continue reading

Also at Acosta and Poey, some 40 people are in a line waiting for their turn to catch a shared-taxi to Vedado. Jaime, a maintenance worker in a polyclinic, can’t give himself the luxury of taking taxis.

“In the morning the taxi driver charges twenty “reeds” (Cuban pesos, CUP) to Vedado. Since I work in Playa, I have to take a second taxi for another 20 pesos. The return is the same. Eighty ‘coconuts’ to come and go from work, and I only get paid 20 a day. If I take a taxi I can make the trip in an hour, and if I wait for the bus, it’s three hours coming and going. Many documentaries, books and recorded chats about the life and work of Fidel Castro, but the government spent 60 years without being able to solve the transport problem. This is crap, brother,” says Jaime, notably angry.

If you want to meet a Cuban ruminating on the horrors of Castroism, visit him at home during a blackout, or ask him about the supposed benefits of socialism at the bus stop crammed with people.

At best, he relaxes at a popular pachanga (party) with some cheap beer and infamous rum, with reggaeton or aggressive timba in the background. But when it comes from moving from one place to other in Havana, they put on a whole other face.

Like Mireya’s face right now. She’s a kitchen helper at a school. “Oh mother. I leave at 6:30 in the morning to catch a bus. And at 8:00 I’m still at the stop. And when you do manage to get on, you have to keep your wits about you because at least opportunity the pickpockets will lift your wallet. And don’t even talk about the perverts. They shove themselves up against your ‘package’ from behind like you’re their wife. The other day some shameless guy was so hot he took it out and masturbated in plain sight,” said Mireya, talking openly to everyone around her.

The lines at the butcher shop to buy “chicken for fish,” or to do legal paperwork, or to wait for public transport, have become a kind of people’s plaza where a journalist, politician or specialist in social topics could take the pulse of a nation. Two years ago, the president of Finland disguised himself as a taxi driver to learn his compatriot’s opinions about his management of the state. That would be a good example for the Cuban authorities to follow.

Managing efficient public transport, be it land, air, rail or sea, is something the olive green junta that governs Cuban can’t get done.

Fidel Castro, today feted for his extensive anti-imperialist discourse and his role in the decolonization struggle of Africa, was never able to design a working transportation system for the island.

Havana, with its million and a half inhabitants, and a million foreign tourists and illegal visitors from other provinces, probably features among the worst cities of the world to get from one place or another quickly and cheaply.

In the 1960s, Fidel Castro acquired three thousand Leyland buses in Great Britain for urban and interprovincial transport. But it wasn’t like that. In the following decades, they were bought in Spain, Japan, Hungary, Brazil and China.

In Havana it has always been an odyssey to travel by bus. At its best, there were more than 100 bus routes in the capital and 2,500 buses plus a fleet of 4,000 taxis, bought from the Argentina military dictatorship, although they never finished paying for them.

With the coming of the Special Period in 1990, the closest thing to a war without bombs, public transport experienced its real death throes. The “camels” — a monster patented by some sadistic engineer — were container trailers outfitted with seats and pulled by a semi-truck tractor unit that could carry 300 people each, packed like sardines in a can.

Havanans still remember the memorable brawls inside the “camels,” worthy of an Olympic boxing match. Those steel boxes were saunas in the tropical heat and according to street legends they served to procreate dozens of kids of unknown fathers.

If every Cuban state official had to pay a penny for every revealed lie, believe me, there would be a legion of new rich on the island. Many thought it was a bad joke, but in 2014, the government, in complete seriousness, after authorizing the sale of Peugeots at Ferrari prices, announced that they were going to use the profits to create a fund to buy buses to improve urban transport.

Three years later not a single Peugeot 508 has been sold. Logically, you don’t have to have a Nobel in economics to know that no one is going to pay the equivalent of 300,000 dollars for a touring car. And in cash.

Thus, ordinary Cubans like the worker Jaime and the cook Mireya, are still waiting two hours to board a city bus. Until all those lovely Peugeots are sold.

Private Taxi Drivers Feel Harassed By The Cuban Government / Iván García

Taken from Habana Live.

Iván García, 15 February 2017 — Decidedly, equanimity isn’t one of Pastor’s strong points. He’s an industrial engineer transformed into a private taxi driver, and six days a week he drives a 1954 Dodge with a body from a Detroit factory, patched up a couple of times in a Havana workshop and improved with a German engine from a Mercedes Benz, a South Korean transmission and a steering wheel from a Lada of the Soviet era. With this car he operates on a fixed-route as a shared-taxi.

This mechanical Frankenstein is the livelihood of Pastor, his wife, four children and two grandchildren. “When I stop driving, it’s felt in the house. So I have to be driving 12 or 13 hours daily. My family and even my in-laws live from my almendrón (old American car). The government considers us taxi drivers as tycoons, newly rich. But that’s not true,” says Pastor, while he drives his taxi through the narrow Monte Street in the direction of the Parque de la Fraternidad. continue reading

At the end of the trip, he parks very close to the Saratoga Hotel and enumerates details of the collective taxi business in Havana. “There are two types of taxi drivers. Those who own their car, like me, and those who lease it to someone who owns five or six cars and makes money renting them out. We all pay the same tax, which the State raises each year, by using some ruse,” he comments, and he adds:

“The study that ONAT, the National Tax Office, did, which controls private work on the Island, is very elementary. Its calculations are removed from reality. The deductions for the time we aren’t working are erroneous. Sometimes the car has to be in the shop for two or more months.

But the transportation problem, which the government tries to blame us for, is something that they haven’t resolved. If my business is one of supply and demand, then no one should stick their nose into my prices. It doesn’t concern the State. If they want to improve public transportation let them buy hundreds of busses and taxis, so they can see how low prices have fallen,” says Pastor, who, as we’re chatting, becomes impassioned, and more than a few swear words sprinkle the conversation.

“This can only happen in a dictatorship. If they really want things to get better they would have had a dialogue with us, the taxi drivers, who in the capital alone number more than 10,000. Compadre, the State doesn’t give a shit about helping us. They don’t give us so much as a single screw. We pay them everything. What would have been a good solution? To sell us gas, which now costs 1.10 Cuban convertible pesos (roughly $1.10 US) in the government filling stations, at 10 or 15 Cuban pesos (roughly $0.40 to $0.60 US), and then require us to have fixed prices on a route,” says Pastor, indignant.

If you talk with any of the private taxi drivers in Havana, you will note their barely-contained irritation. “It’s simple: If the government continues fucking with me, I’ll surrender my State license tomorrow and work under the table. Actually, there’s a ton of people who are doing that. They don’t have enough police to be going after 15,000 illegal taxi drivers,” says a taxi driver who drives the Havana-Playa route.

Eliecer, a driver on the Lisa-Parque Central route, explains his accounting. “I drive for a lady who owns the auto. I pay her 25 CUC daily. But I have to pay for repairs and gasoline. After the 600 Cuban pesos that I turn over to the owner, I earn between 400 and 500 Cuban pesos daily. But I don’t have any rest. I kill myself working.”

What especially bothers Osvel, a retired soldier, is the arrogance of the authorities. “What would it cost the government to meet with us and negotiate a good agreement? But no, they do it as they see fit. It’s true that you can earn 10 times what you would working for the State, but you always have to put money aside in case of breakdowns, because the cars are old and need frequent repairs. The easiest way is to force it on people, an old government custom.”

In a note published in the government newspaper Granma on February 8, the authorities divided the city into 30 routes and determined the prices that they think should be charged from one stretch or destination to another in the city.

The other side of the problem is the customers. Eight out of 12 people interviewed said they were upset by the increase in taxi prices in Havana. “The taxi drivers have some nerve. Because they’ve had the balls to double and triple their prices. If they think the government is abusing them, then let them have a strike in the Plaza de la Revolución, but don’t try to get out of it by raising prices and fucking the passenger,” comments Daniel, who says he spent an hour waiting for a taxi on Calzada de Diez de Octubre.

In July 2016, the Regime decreed that prices were going up, and they opened a telephone line for complaints from the population. Many taxi drivers stopped driving for several days, and the majority decided to split the routes. For example, the route from La Palma to the Parque de la Fraternidad, which cost 10 pesos, was divided into two: 10 pesos up to Toyo and Calzada de Luyanó, and another 10 pesos up to the Parque de la Fraternidad.

“The problem is that before, you could get gas on the black market. But since last spring, the government began controlling the fuel that was being stolen from State businesses. Now you have to buy it in CUCs, and it costs more than double than it did under the table. And then they raise the prices, explained a taxi driver.

All those interviewed agree, taxi drivers as well as users, that with these populist measures the government is trying to disguise who’s really guilty and their proven inefficiency and incapacity to design a functional model of transport.

Pastor, angry, goes further. “It’s an undeclared war on private workers. Why don’t they raise the prices for taxis rented from the State? They work almost without using the taximeter and then charge twice or three times as much as they did two years ago. And in CUCs.”

The fleet of modern autos painted yellow that circulate in the city, for use by tourists or citizens with deep pockets, pay 55 CUC daily to the State as a leasing fee.

The government isn’t stupid. They’re not going to start a battle with taxi drivers who report their income. And in CUCs.

Translated by Regina Anavy