Breaking the Bank: Fifteenth Birthday Parties in Cuba / Ivan Garcia

Fotos-y-Videos-para-Quinces-bachecubano-620-_mn-620x330Ivan Garcia, 28 February 2015 — Fourteen-year-old Yanisbel has one hot meal a day and the roof of her house leaks but her mother and grandparents have been saving for a decade to stage a traditional quinceañera, a celebration of her fifteenth birthday.

“All the women in my family celebrated their fifteenth birthdays,” says her mother. “My daughter should too. Maybe we won’t be able to throw a blow-out party. We don’t have relatives in government or in Miami but at least we’ll have photos taken, buy her three new outfits and throw a little party for her school friends.”

Yanisbel’s grandparents sell prepared lunches and milk caramels. They keep some of their earnings in a ceramic jar. “Fifteenth birthday parties get more expensive every day. An album of one photo session and a video is going to cost us 200 CUC. Then there are the costs for the dress, the buffet and beverages for the party. More than 600 chavitos (convertible pesos) in total,” her grandfather explains. “That’s the equivalent of five-years’ worth of pension for a retired person.”

South of the capital in the town of Casino Deportivo, Jennifer’s family will celebrate her birthday in high style. Accompanied by her parents, Jennifer visits the studio of a well-known photographer. Seated on a high bench, surrounded by strong lighting, a mirror and a white hat, she poses as if she were a model.

After a light dinner and a bath, she waits with her parents and boyfriend for a video to be shot. On the eve of the party she goes shopping with her mother and two girlfriends at a boutique in Miramar.

The climax is a four-night stay at a five-star Cayo Coco hotel in Ciego de Avila six hours by car from Havana. “The hotel and clothing expenses are being paid for by relatives who live in Miami. They’re flying to Cuba on the day of the party,” says Jennifer’s father, a mid-level bureaucrat at a state enterprise.

When asked about the costs, the father waves his hand and smiles. “What can I say? It’s a family secret. We have been putting away money since she was born. I stopped counting after about two-thousand convertible pesos.”

While Jennifer looks forward to the celebration, Octavio — an assistant bricklayer whose daughter’s fifteenth birthday is twenty days away — does not have a bank account or a wad of cash stashed under the mattress. “I will think of something. I plan on buying some new clothes and taking some pictures. Maybe I’ll pawn the TV or the fridge. I don’t know,” says Octavio as he waits in line at a bakery.

A photo session with the subject dressed like an actress and a DVD with photomontages ranges from 120 to 350 CUC. Poor girls like Ileana cannot celebrate their fifteenth birthdays by going out on the town with their friends. “But I do have a photo album and my parents gave me a pair of high-heeled shoes,” she notes.

Yamila, a sociologist, believes fifteenth birthday parties like this are a long-standing tradition in Cuba. “I cannot pinpoint exactly when this Latin American custom melded with the European tradition of ballroom dances,” she says. “In Spain, when a boy reached adolescence, they would put a goat in a sack and throw it off the top of a bell tower. I don’t know if they still do that but every July 7 on the Feast of San Fermin people in Pamplona run through the streets with bulls.”

She explains that in the United States the president even spares the life of turkey on Thanksgiving. “Every country has its customs and traditions. Purists in Cuba look upon fifteenth birthday parties as being tacky, extravagant wastes of money. But in the popular imagination they remain cherished events,” the sociologist points out.

A profitable private-sector industry has grown up on the island around these celebrations. Pablo, a professional photographer, alternates his time between working for a foreign press agency and shooting fifteenth birthday parties. “If you are a high-caliber photographer, you can make good money. Thanks to weddings and quinceañeras, I have been able to buy a 1956 Cadillac in good condition and spend a few days in Varadero every year. I find these parties cheesy but, as long as they pay well, long live the fifteenths.

Cuba’s fifteenth birthday celebrations have crossed the Florida Straits and have taken root among the hundreds of thousands of compatriots living there. Although many families have little to eat and live in poverty, the arrival of girl’s fifteenth birthday is an important event. Some people like Jennifer’s parents can afford to break the bank.

Five Years of the Blog “From Havana” / Ivan Garcia

Ivan Garcia, 8 March 2015 — When I decided to write a blog, at the end of December 2008, my pretensions were minimal.

I had decided to take a break in order to dedicate my time to my daughter, Melany, who was then two years old. Although I wasn’t writing, mentally I continued to be focused on journalism. Those were difficult times. Repression from the hard liners of State Security was at its highest point.

In March 2003, a choleric Fidel Castro had ordered the imprisonment of 75 peaceful dissidents. Among them, 27 free journalists. Independent journalism was going through its worst phase. Continue reading

Cuba: Potatoes from the Ration Book (When Available) / Ivan Garcia

policia-controlando-cola-de-papas-_mn-620x330Ivan Garcia, 15 March 2015 — The dirty, dilapidated produce market — its floor covered with red dirt and its shelving rusty — in Cerro’s crowded El Pilar neighborhood is ten minutes by car from the center of Havana. Sandra, a housewife, has spent two nights in line here waiting for potatoes.

“At three in the afternoon the truck arrived. It took an hour to unload them and, when they went on sale, the line was a block long. The commotion was incredible. The police had to come to restore order. There was a ton of people in line and I ended up not being able to buy potatoes. The manager and his employees kept a lot of bags for themselves to sell on the side,” Sandra says, who was able to buy twenty pounds of potatoes two days later after spending another night in line.

Neither American comedian Conan O’Brien’s show in Havana nor the selfies of Paris Hilton and Naomi Campbell with the local playboys nor the predicaments of President Nicolas Maduro have kept the average Cuban from attending to her pressing daily needs. Continue reading

The Ladies in White Should Change Their Political Profile / Ivan Garcia

damas-de-blanco-por-la-quinta-avenida-_mn-620x330Ivan Garcia, 11 March 2015 — During the hot summer of 2013 I remember Blanca Reyes, wife of the poet and journalist Raul Rivero, writing letters to the pope in the Vatican, to the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina and to Nelson Mandela in South Africa, reminding them that Fidel Castro had sentenced Rivero to twenty years behind bars for writing without approval.

Reyes was speaking on behalf her husband and seventy-four other prisoners of conscience detained in March 2003. I saw up close the suffering of these women. At mid-morning, armed with baskets of food and toiletries, they traveled hundreds of kilometers to visit their husbands, fathers, sons and brothers in jail.

They were also prisoners of the system. Later they decided to organize. They were like a clan. Laura Pollán was a natural leader who began acting Continue reading

The Conversations and Aspirations of Many Cuban Students / Ivan Garcia

cuba-estudiantes-de-secundaria-_mn-620x330Ivan Garcia, 13 March 2015 — For a group of sixth grade students at the elementary school named after Juan Oscar Alvarado — a 19-year-old underground fighter, assassinated in 1958 in a house in the Sevillano neighborhood where they hid arms — located in that peaceful Havana neighborhood, their plans for the future are far from Cuba.

For them, the country is a disposable object to be thrown out when it is no longer useful. During recess, at ten in the morning, several girls gathered in the school’s courtyard to have a snack.

While snacking, they chat idly about fashion, material aspirations and what happened in the day’s Brazilian soap opera. Although dressed in their ugly uniforms with burgundy skirts and white shirts, designed by a distasteful dressmaker, when you look at their feet you see Nikes, Adidas, New Balance, Converse or Reebok. Continue reading

Radio Marti: The Voice of Cuban Dissidents / Ivan Garcia

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Iván García, 24 February 2015 — One summer during a stay in Camaguey — a province 340 miles east of Havana — the owner of a house where I was staying listened from early morning to Radio Marti, a network created in 1985 under the administration of Ronald Reagan with the goal of providing Cubans with information uncensored or manipulated by the Castro government.

The woman told me that since 1985 she has been listening to radio soap operas, news and a morning program geared to a rural audience. When I travelled to other provinces, nearly all the people with whom I spoke said they got their information from or followed big league baseball on Radio Marti, which is probably heard more in the countryside than Continue reading

With Raul Castro, Are the Poor Poorer? / Ivan Garcia

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Iván García, 26 February 2015 — José lives with his wife and five kids, crammed into a nine by twelve foot space with a wooden platform, in a shack in Santos Suárez, a slum south of Havana.

The tenement is a precarious spot where the electric cables hang from the roof,  water runs down the narrow central passage from the plumbing leaks, and a disgusting smell of sewage hangs in your nose for hours.

That shack forms part of a group of ramshackle settlements where more than 90 thousand Havanans live, according to Joel, a housing official in the 10 de Octubre municipality.

There are worse places. On the outskirts of the capital, shantytowns are spreading like the invasive marabou weed. There are more than 50 of them. Houses made of sections of aluminium and cardboard, without any sanitation Continue reading

Seven Hours with Jorge Luis Piloto in Miami / Ivan Garcia

Jorge Lis Piloto and Ivan Garcia in Miami

Iván García, 4 February 2015 — For the prolific and noteworthy Cuban composer, Jorge Luis Piloto Alsar, born in the winter of 1955 in Cárdenas in the town of Matanzas, some 145 kilometers north of Havana, not in his wildest dreams could he have imagined that his songs would achieve international fame.

Let’s get into the time machine. An ordinary day in the ’70’s. Culturally speaking, Cuba was going through a rough period. Writers, poets and composers are being administered by the state, following Fidel Castro’s decree.

The cinema, novels, la guaracha, and sound must highlight the exploits of the revolution. The government controls all of it. In your profile, you have to indicate how many marches you have been on and how much voluntary work you have participated in, if you want to pass the summer in a house on the beach, have a Russian fridge Continue reading

Do Cuba and the United States Need to Rebuild Trust? / Ivan Garcia

Nancy Pelosi and fellow US Congress Democrats at a press conference in Havana

Ivan Garcia, 20 February 2015 — Fifty Cuban and foreign journalists attended the press conference that a delegation of congressional Democrats headed by Nancy Pelosi held on the afternoon of Thursday, February 19 outside the residence of Lynn Roche, the U.S. Interest Section’s public affairs officer.

Nancy Pelosi, born in Maryland in 1940, traveled to Havana with representatives Eliot Engel, Nydia Velazquez and Steve Israel (New York), David Ciciline (Rhode Island), Rosa DeLauro (Connecticut), Collin Peterson (Minnesota), Anna Eshoo (California ) and Jim McGovern (Massachusetts). Pelosi and members of her delegation support removing Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism and permanently lifting the U.S. embargo.

Other issues of mutual interest discussed at the conference included increased access to telecommunications, empowering small businesses, agricultural development and human rights. Continue reading

The Castro Brothers Pull the Emergency Brake / Ivan Garcia

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Ivan Garcia, 18 February 2015 — Fidel Castro appeared. The bearded old man spoke in an elliptical address that sowed fear of future relations between the two Cold War enemies.

The message was meant to cool the enthusiasm of the young. The old guerrilla, bellicose as ever, gummed up the works and dampened the festive atmosphere of a large segment of the island’s population who want to see an end to the longstanding dispute between Cuba and the United States.

You need not be a code breaker to decipher the meaning. It was a storm warning: The Yankees are still at the gate, only now with different weapons.

The hackneyed theory of ripe fruit. The gringos want to clog us with McDonald’s, broadband internet and smartphones. This time the Trojan horse is not a missile; it’s a computer. Continue reading

La Bolita, Cuba’s National Obsession? / Ivan Garcia

bolitas-de-lotería1-_mn-620x330Iván García, 2 February 2015 — It is half past noon and Saul is collecting bets for the clandestine Cuban lottery known as  bolita (little ball) or charada, (charade) which was legal before 1959 and has always been very popular.

Under a scorching sun that provides a tint of summer to what passes for winter on the island, he walks along the steep backstreets of La Víbora, a neighborhood south of Havana. At seventy-six he has found no better way of making money than as a bookie.

“It didn’t matter that I fought at the Bay of Pigs and Escambray. I retired with a monthly pension of 207 pesos (around eight dollars). I make twice that amount taking bets for the bolita every day,” he says as he records a wager by the manager of a farmers’ market in a school notebook.

Around noon he collects the bets of his best clients Continue reading

Jose Varela, the Cuban Charlie Hebdo / Ivan Garcia

josé-varela-_mn-620x330Ivan Garcia, Havana, 8 February 2015 — No one wants to know him except the readers of his blogs. Jose Varela is out there on his own. He is the type of humorist that public figures from both sides of the Florida Straits want to keep at a distance, the farther the better.

He is an outlaw squared. The Cuban regime has tried to co-opt his posts and cartoons when they ridicule dissidents. But when Varela trains his canons on the Palace of the Revolution, the curtain of censorship comes down.

Word has it he lives on a farm outside of Miami and that in 2006 — I do not know why — he broke into the offices of El Nuevo Herald, where he worked as a cartoonist, with a toy machine gun. Continue reading